Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints no longer sound like a team in denial when they discuss their refusal to give up on this most unusual of seasons.
Perhaps all was not lost when they followed up a scandal-plagued offseason with an 0-4 start.
Certainly, the Superdome was packed with reveling believers after tight end Jimmy Graham turned in a career performance and his teammates made a slew of clutch plays to hand the rival Atlanta Falcons their first loss of the season, 31-27 on Sunday.
"This win today is a culmination of these guys sticking together from Day 1," said assistant head coach Joe Vitt, now leading the coaching staff while Sean Payton serves a season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints. "They come to work with sense of purpose every day. They don't point fingers and they work hard to get better every day and that's what they've done."
Graham caught seven passes for a career-best 146 yards and two touchdowns, and Jabari Greer made a diving, touchdown-saving pass breakup on a late fourth-down pass intended for Roddy White to help New Orleans hold on.
Brees threw for 298 yards and three TDs as the Saints (4-5) won for the fourth time in five games, keeping alive hope of getting back into the wild-card race. It was also New Orleans' 11th win in 13 games against Atlanta since Brees joined the Saints in 2006.
The Saints can even their record with a win at Oakland next weekend.
"That's something we feel like we're capable of and we envisioned being able to do that, because we know the type of team we have," Brees said. "We knew we dug ourselves a hole. We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. ...Good things are starting to happen."
Greer's play represented a measure of redemption for the veteran cornerback, who'd given up two long passes earlier in the game that led to Atlanta scores.
"I was kind of depressed before that play," Greer said. "I saw my name on the waiver wire. ... Being able to go out there and make a play for our team and to be able to celebrate after everything that happened and just to win that way, it's a gift."
Matt Ryan was 34 of 52 for a career-best 411 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and the game was there for him to win when his 9-yard pass to Harry Douglas gave Atlanta (8-1) a second-and-goal at the 1. But Ryan could not connect on a second-down pass for Tony Gonzalez, the Saints stuffed Michael Turner for a 1-yard loss on third down, and then came Greer's play on Ryan's pass over the middle for White.
"It's not like they came out here and won a game today," White said of the Saints. "I think we kind of gave it to them. ... We play them in three weeks (Nov. 29) and we'll be ready."
The Saints punted the ball back to Atlanta one last time with about 40 seconds left, but the Falcons' last hope fizzled when Gonzalez could not haul in Ryan's fourth down pass.
Both Graham and Gonzalez were superb in a game that showcased the intensity and momentum changes one would expect from one of the NFL's most passionate and longstanding rivalries.
Gonzalez finished with 11 catches for 122 yards and two scores for Atlanta (8-1), and in the process became the first tight end to catch 100 touchdown passes.
"Tony, he kind of paved the way for me," said Graham, who like Gonzalez had a college basketball background before making the transition to NFL tight end. "It seemed like every drive I'm kind of going up against the things that he did the last drive."
Although the Saints' defense came in allowing a league-worst 176.5 yards rushing per game, it held Atlanta to 46 yards on the ground.
New Orleans rushed for 148 yards, highlighted by Chris Ivory's career-long 56-yard scoring run that gave the Saints a spark after Atlanta had raced to a 10-0 lead.
Ivory used a hesitation move to get to the corner past Asante Samuel, slipped a tackle by Thomas DeCoud, kept his balance, cut back and then stiff-armed Dunta Robinson before trotting into the end zone.
The Saints led 28-17 on Brees' scoring strike to Marques Colston.
It was Colston's 55th career TD, tying Deuce McAllister for first in Saints history. The score capped an 81-yard drive which began with rookie Corey White's interception and was highlighted by Lance Moore's diving one-handed catch for a 29-yard gain to the Atlanta 32.
The Falcons pulled to 28-27 on Gonzalez's second TD and Matt Bryant's field goal after New Orleans' second red zone stand of the game.
New Orleans briefly interrupted Atlanta's momentum when Graham's 46-yard catch set up Garrett Hartley's 31-yard field goal, setting up a thrilling finish.
NOTES: Ivory's previous career-long run was a 55-yard score at Cincinnati in 2010. ... Brees has now passed for touchdowns in 52 straight games, extending an NFL record he set earlier this season. ... Gonzales now has 101 career TDs, one of only eight players ever with 100 or more. ... All 55 of Colston's TD passes were thrown by Brees, tying the tandem for ninth with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice with San Francisco and Dan Marino and Mark Duper with Miami. ... The performances by Graham and Gonzalez marked the first time in NFL history that two tight ends had at least 120 yards receiving and two TD catches in the same game.
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