The (11-4) earned the opportunity under fire Monday night, shaking off the Atlanta Falcons by 17-14 in the charged atmosphere of the Georgia Dome.
The win gets New Orleans through the playoff turnstile, assuring them at minimum a wild-card berth. The Saints, who host the in the season finale, can still win the N.F.C. South, but it is not likely. Atlanta (12-3) would have to stumble at home against lowly Carolina.
“It feels good,” Saints quarterback said after the game. “You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we’ve done that.”
It took awhile this season for the Saints to discover that, as the defending Super Bowl champions, “Everybody is going to give you their best shot,” safety Roman Harper said. “No game is just a gimme.”
“Everybody plays the champs like it’s a playoff game every time,” defensive tackle Remi Ayodele said. “We’re just trying to get into the tournament. Give us a shot.”
The Falcons, driven to show skeptics that their status as the pending top N.F.C. seed is no fluke, led by 14-10 well into the fourth quarter. After an Atlanta punt, New Orleans stared at a gulf of 90 yards between the line of scrimmage and the goal line.
But Brees shook off a dreadful start to the period and whipped his squad to the winning score, a 6-yard pass to Jimmy Graham with three and a half minutes left.
“He’s gonna come through for us,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Brees. “We never worry about Drew Brees.”
The teams flipped the anticipated script on a clash of forceful offenses — New Orleans’s quick strike, Atlanta’s ball control — with a defensive tour de force.
Setting the tone in the first quarter were the teams’ six combined punts, nearly matching the rushing total, 7 yards.
“We made them do something else than let them run Michael Turner and throw to Tony Gonzalez,” the Saints’ Harper said.
Defensive end Alex Brown said: “We gang-tackled. We were pretty sound all night.”
The Falcons’ defense seemingly turned the game in their favor with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, neither by a defensive back.
Brees tossed a high-risk pass with the Falcons’ Jonathan Babineaux wrapped around him. Defensive end Chauncey Davis picked it off and lumbered 26 yards to lift Atlanta in front, 14-10.
In no time, Brees found Marques Colston in the end zone for an apparent go-ahead score, but a penalty wiped it out. On the next play, Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon deflected a Brees pass and plucked it out of midair to stave off the threat.
The Falcons’ defense thought it had induced yet another turnover, pouncing on a fumble that would have set up their offense a step outside the red zone with just over two minutes left. But a replay rightly reversed the call.
Though unexpectedly short of scoring, the game fit nicely into a rivalry that is one of the ’s least appreciated, partly because of its provincial nature and sorry legacy of insignificant games.
The league’s two most deeply Southern cities broke in their teams a year apart in the mid-1960s. During decades of mostly inept seasons — until the Saints’ Super Bowl run last year, the franchises had combined for only eight playoff wins — the twice-annual games were highlighted on fans’ schedules.
The animus was altered when sent thousands of New Orleans residents to the Atlanta area, where many resettled for good. Some switched, or at least split, their allegiances, while others stayed loud and proud.
Atlanta inadvertently did its part to help restore New Orleans, losing to the Saints in the first post-Katrina game at the Superdome four seasons ago.
The rivalry, if changed, remains intense, and Falcons wide receiver Roddy White fanned the flames last week with the thoroughly modern version of athletics trash talk: posting on . Though White also posted an apology on Twitter, he was often at the center of chippy play early Monday.
Late in the first half, White helped Atlanta cut the deficit to 10-7 on a 7-yard scoring catch, the 3-point margin being a 52-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.
Hartley almost lost his job by misfiring from about half that distance in overtime of a loss to Atlanta in September, the low point of the Saints’ bumpy 4-3 start.
The Saints promptly added the veteran John Carney to the roster, which scared Harley straight, and he returned to good graces a few weeks later.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, 19-1 as a starter at home before Monday, could not rescue his team. Atlanta fans, many of them unwilling to let go of the era by wearing his old No. 7 jersey to games, now prefer Ryan’s No. 2 as their fashion statement.
But the player known as Matty Ice never warmed up, steering his offense to a single score.
“We just didn’t make the plays,” Falcons Coach Mike Smith said. “We still like where we’re at.”
So do the Saints, their chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions not rinsed away.