Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) reacts in pain after being sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) during the second half at the Georgia Dome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 17-13. (Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
ATLANTA -- Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints' defense took care of business with a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, setting up a crucial showdown next week against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks.
Brees, New Orleans' quarterback, threw two touchdown passes, including a 44-yard strike to tight end Graham in the second quarter, leading the Saints to their sixth victory in their past seven meetings with the Falcons. Graham finished with five catches for 100 yards and his 10th touchdown of the season.
The Saints (9-2) head to Seattle to face the Seahawks (10-1) in a game that could end up determining the top seed in the NFC playoffs. New Orleans leads the Carolina Panthers (7-3) by a 1 1/2 games in the NFC South. The division rivals will square off twice in December.
"We felt going into this game we knew it was going to be a challenge," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It is every time we play them. It was a good win for us, and we will enjoy it for now and get ready with a little bit of extended time for the next game."
Atlanta (2-9) lost its fifth consecutive game and was mathematically eliminated from the NFC South race.
"I thought we responded to some momentum changes, to some adversity in the football game, but still not good enough," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "We you don't win, it's not good enough."
The improved New Orleans defense kept Atlanta out of the end zone the final three quarters and ended quarterback Matt Ryan's 16-game streak with at least one touchdown pass. The Saints sacked Ryan five times.
"Entirely too many pressures on the quarterback in the football game tonight," Smith said about the play of the Falcons' offensive line. "We've got to make sure we're putting them in their best positions as a coaching staff in terms of the things that we're asking them to do."
Still, Atlanta was down only four and driving at the start of the fourth quarter. Saints linebacker Keyunta Dawson stripped Falcons wide receiver Darius Johnson, and cornerback Corey White recovered the fumble inside the Saints' 20-yard line to thwart Atlanta's best scoring chance of the second half.
The Falcons' defense also played well, holding the Saints to three points in the second half, but the offense couldn't deliver a go-ahead score.
Ryan completed 30 of 39 passes for 297 yards.
Brees finished 23 of 33 for 278 yards and orchestrated a balanced attack that gained 103 yards on the ground.
The Falcons got off to a fast start, forcing a three-and-out on New Orleans' first series and scoring on their opening drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Steven Jackson. It was Jackson's first rushing touchdown of the season, a revealing stat for the league's 31st-ranked rushing offense.
The Saints answered with Brees touchdown passes on their next two drives. He found tight end Ben Watson in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal and then connected with Graham for a 44-yard score that helped the Saints take a 14-13 lead into halftime.
"Great teams start to separate from the good teams in November and December," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "It felt good to come in here and get a win against a divisional opponent."
The only scoring of the second half was a 41-yard field goal by Saints kicker Garrett Hartley late in the third quarter.
NOTES: New Orleans RB Darren Sproles, the NFL's leader in receptions, was inactive due to knee and ankle injuries. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan was sacked by DT Akiem Hicks in the first half on a play that looked similar to the hit that San Francisco LB Ahmad Brooks put on Saints QB Drew Brees last week. Brooks was called for hitting the quarterback high and eventually was fined by the league. Hicks hit Ryan in the facemask, but no penalty was called. ... Brees passed Warren Moon for fifth place on the NFL's career passing yards list on the Saints' scoring drive in the first quarter. ... Atlanta starting CB Desmond Trufant injured a thigh in the first half and left the game.