Their defense was not the turnover machine it was last year. Quarterback has thrown inexplicable interceptions. Injuries bedeviled the running game. Garrett Hartley — the kicker who made the overtime field goal that sent them to the Super Bowl last winter — missed a field goal that would have given the Saints an over their division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, and a leg up in the N.F.C. race.
Last season, the Saints were so dominant they did not lose a game until Week 15. This season, they entered Week 16 in Atlanta at risk of missing the playoffs altogether. But on Monday night, the Saints righted themselves after another mysterious game — all defense by both teams, two stunning fourth-quarter interceptions by Brees — by summoning some of the magic from 2009 to beat the Falcons, .
Brees went back to being Brees just in time, completing seven consecutive passes on the 90-yard winning drive, including a 6-yard touchdown pass on third-and-3 with 3 minutes 24 seconds remaining.
This was a shot-across-the-bow-victory for the Saints. It not only put them back into the playoffs, but it also shattered the Falcons’ sense of invincibility at home, where they had not lost this season (including victories over playoff-caliber teams like the , the and the ) and had lost just once in Matt Ryan’s three seasons as the quarterback.
“They were the better team tonight,” Falcons Coach Mike Smith said.
The Saints (11-4) are unlikely to enjoy the comforts of their raucous home, which bolstered their run last season.
The Saints’ victory means four teams are alive for home-field advantage in the N.F.C. Despite losing, the Falcons (12-3) have the easiest path to it, needing only to beat the lowly on Sunday to secure the N.F.C.’s top seed.
The outcome also narrowed the options for the Giants. For them to make the playoffs, the Giants must beat the on Sunday and root for the to beat the Packers. That would make the Giants the N.F.C.’s sixth seed and likely set up a rematch with the , who are likely to be the third seed behind the Falcons and the Bears.
Still, the road to the Super Bowl in the N.F.C. may have to go around the Saints, and this is bad news for the rest of the conference, which would probably have sent a lovely fruit basket to the team that knocked the Saints out of the playoff picture.
Instead, the Saints cannot finish lower than the fifth seed, which would set up a first-round game against the winner — survivor is more accurate — of the N.F.C. West.
The and the play for that title Sunday night, and if the Seahawks win, they will be the first team to win a division with a losing record in a full season. The Saints demolished the Rams and the Seahawks in the past six weeks.
Winning three in a row on the road to reach the Super Bowl is tough. But the Saints just damaged one opponent’s considerable home-field advantage.
“Let the good times roll” is a civic motto for New Orleans. The rest of the N.F.C. does not want to see the Saints roll into their town for the playoffs.