ATLANTA — The New Orleans Saints keep cutting it close.
Drew Brees threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns, Jonathan Vilma came up with two huge defensive plays, and the Saints remained perfect with another tight win, 26-23 over the pesky Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Garrett Hartley won it on a 38-yard field goal with a 4:42 remaining after the Falcons rallied from 14 points down. The offensive-minded Saints (13-0) then turned to defense to preserve another victory – Vilma came up with an interception, then doled out a big fourth-down hit on Jason Snelling to finish off the Falcons' final drive.
The Falcons (6-7) lost for the sixth time in eight games and their playoff hopes appear to be over. Atlanta played without two of its biggest stars, quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, both out for the second week in a row with injuries.
A week ago, New Orleans appeared on the verge of losing until Washington missed a chip-shot field goal in regulation. The Saints pulled out a 33-30 win in overtime.
While again failing to score many style points, New Orleans set a franchise record for wins in a season, clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs and moved a step closer to ensuring home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Brees had another big game with a 31-of-40 performance that included a pair of touchdown passes to Reggie Bush and another to Marques Colston.
The Saints appeared to be pulling away when Brees hooked up with Bush on a 21-yard score to cap the opening possession of the second half, pushing New Orleans to a 23-9 lead.
But Atlanta bounced back. Michael Jenkins hauled in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Chris Redman, the Falcons' defense forced New Orleans' lone punt of the game and Snelling powered in from the 4 to tie the game at 23 with 12:56 remaining.
Back came Brees and the Saints. Looking as though they intended to run off most of the clock, they put together their longest drive of the game, a 16-play, 63-yard march that finally stalled at the Atlanta 20 after an intentional grounding call on Brees.
Hartley, who had earlier missed an extra point, knocked through his second field goal to put the Saints ahead for good.
Atlanta had a couple of chances to pull out an improbable win. Vilma stopped them both.
First, the linebacker dropped into coverage to pick off a pass that Redman intended for Roddy White over the middle. The Saints failed to score any points off that miscue, attempting a fake field goal that didn't work.
The Falcons were getting close to field-goal range when they faced fourth-and-2 at the New Orleans 46 with just over a minute remaining. Redman threw short to Snelling, but Vilma plastered the running back for only a 1-yard gain.
Redman was 23 of 34 for 303 yards but got little help from the ground game with Turner out. Snelling was the top rusher with 37 yards on 10 carries.