ATLANTA — The NFC South, at least for this season, belongs to the Atlanta Falcons.
After New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was heard by NFL Network microphones telling his teammates they owned the division, the Falcons went out Thursday night and moved one step closer to winning the title the Saints claimed two of the past three years.
“This is our division,” Brees told his teammates before the game. “They know it. ... We know it.”
But the Falcons’ 23-13 victory in the Georgia Dome clinched a playoff berth, and they can take the division title with one more win or a loss by the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Meanwhile, the Saints’ slim playoff hopes took another hit with their second setback in five days. Coupled with Sunday’s 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Saints (5-7) are now 11/2 games out of the final NFC wild-card spot with only four games remaining.
At least the Saints didn’t make it easy for the Falcons (11-1) even though Atlanta built a huge 17-0 lead with 8:53 left in the second quarter.
It certainly looked like it was going to be a rare runaway for the Falcons, who have recorded seven wins this season by seven or fewer points.
Even though the Saints came back to make it a game, pulling to within 17-13 in the third quarter, they came up short — just as they did when they failed to get points with the ball on the Falcons’ 3 as the clock expired to end the first half.
The Falcons not only inched closer to winning the division, they ended Brees’ NFL-record streak with a touchdown pass at 54 games.
“I didn’t realize that until we walked off the field and somebody told me,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith, who defeated the Saints for only the third time in 10 tries. “It’s an unbelievable streak ... Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback.
“The way that our defense played tonight speaks volumes of how they played,” he added.
The Falcons added more insult to injury when they intercepted Brees five times — a career-high for the 12-year veteran who had twice tossed four in a game since joining the Saints in 2006.
Two of the picks came in the final 31/2 minutes of the game, when the Saints were desperately trying to come all the way back from that 17-0 second-quarter deficit.
The Falcons built that lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner to cap a six-play, 80-yard drive to open the game as they easily sliced through the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense.
Turner and backup Jacquizz Rodgers needed just five carries to combine for 71 rushing yards on the impressive drive, which was 25 more than they had in the entire game in a 31-27 loss to the Saints on Nov. 11 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After that, quarterback Matt Ryan threw a 17-yard scoring pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and Matt Bryant added a 45-yard field goal to push the lead to 17-0 with 8:53 to play in the second quarter.
But that’s when the Saints started to come back.
While the defense began holding its own with three straight three-and-outs, the Saints’ offense tried to get back in it.
Brees cranked up an 80-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by Mark Ingram to cut the deficit to 17-7.
The first three-and-out for the Falcons gave the ball back to the Saints with 2:13 left in the first half.
Brees quickly got his team in position to cut the lead to 17-14 just before halftime when his 7-yard TD pass to running back Darren Sproles with 45 seconds left was negated by a pass interference call on tight end Jimmy Graham.
Sproles caught a 12-yard pass to move the ball to the Falcons’ 5. But the Saints, who were out of timeouts, wasted 33 seconds before Brees took the next snap and threw to Sproles, who was tackled by Robert McClain and Sean Weatherspoon to drain the final seconds off the clock.
“Obviously, we were going down there to get some points in the two-minute (drill),” a sullen Brees said. “Honestly, I thought we had more time. But when I looked up at the clock, there were 17 seconds left.
“We went up there to clock it, but that was my mistake,” he added. “That can’t happen. We should have gotten at least three points, so that’s definitely on me.”
Still, the Saints came out rejuvenated in the second half and had two promising drives that eventually stalled — bringing on Garrett Hartley for field goals of 21 and 52 yards that trimmed the Falcons’ advantage to 17-13 heading to the final quarter.
The Saints’ defense, which settled down after the Falcons put up 140 yards in the first quarter and allowed a season-low 283 total yards, got the ball back both times after forcing two straight Falcons punts.
But the Saints couldn’t turn them into touchdowns.
“It was a game of lost opportunities,” said Saints wide receiver Lance Moore, who caught seven passes for 123 yards as the Saints finished with 436 total yards.
Bryant added field goals of 29 and 55 yards in the final quarter, the first after an interception by strong safety William Moore late in the third period, to secure the win.
“It was a disappointing loss for our football team today,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “We will go back to work (Friday). The future, as far as the playoffs go, looks bleak right now … but we will still work to get better every day.”