NEW ORLEANS — Just like last season, Matt Ryan had the Atlanta Falcons achingly close to a late go-ahead touchdown against New Orleans at the Superdome. Once again, they could not finish the deal.
Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro deflected Ryan's fourth-down throw for tight end Tony Gonzalez into the hands of safety Roman Harper for the clinching interception in the end zone with 43 seconds left. The Saints held on, winning 23-17.
The painful ending was eerily similar to a year ago. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer knocked down Ryan's fourth-down pass for Roddy White from the 2 to preserve a 31-27 New Orleans victory. Only that time, the Falcons were 8-0 and headed for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. This time, they fell a game behind the Saints in a division that has not had a repeat champion since its formation in 2002.
"Any time you lose it stinks, and certainly today it stinks that we didn't get the outcome that we wanted," Ryan said. "We gave ourselves a chance, and we just fell short. The biggest part of being a professional is being able to move on. There's 15 more to go and lots of ball to be played."
Ryan, who drove the Falcons 77 yards to the New Orleans 3 on their final possession, started to celebrate when his third-and-goal pass reached running back Steven Jackson at the goal line. But the ball bounced off Jackson's hands even before Saints linebacker Ramon Humber hit him.
"When my number is called, I expect to make the play," Jackson said. "I dropped the ball. It wasn't the easiest catch, but I'm not a person to make excuses."
The fourth-down pass was not as close, leaving the Falcons with a familiar empty feeling. They have lost seven of their last eight in New Orleans.
Across the field was a relieved Sean Payton, enjoying his latest win against his NFC South rivals in what was his regular season return to the sideline from his bounty ban.
"It was just important to get the first win," Payton said. "You try to compartmentalize each week, each game, and we played a good team. ... We fought hard, especially late in the game."
Atlanta is 3-12 overall against New Orleans in the Payton era, though the coach was not present for the Falcons' loss in the Superdome a year ago.
"It was hard for us last year, and it's no easier to swallow this year," Atlanta center Peter Konz said. "But in a game like this, you know you can win. We know what we have to build on, and it can be a positive experience going forward."
Atlanta's offensive line allowed three sacks, with second-year player Lamar Holmes making his first career start at right tackle in place of Mike Johnson, who had a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Still, Ryan had plenty of time on the final possession as he completed five in a row to give Atlanta a first-and-goal at the New Orleans 7.
He was 1 of 4 from there, connecting only on a dumpoff to White for a 4-yard gain on second down. On fourth down, Gonzalez said he was the second option behind wide receiver Julio Jones.
"Give them credit, they made the play," Gonzalez said. "The ball was up in the air and I liked my chances, but we were just a fingertip away."
Ryan passed for 304 yards and touchdown passes to Gonzalez and Jones. Jackson rushed 11 times for 77 yards in his Atlanta debut, including a 50-yard run.
New Orleans' defense gave up a pair of 50-yard plays, the other on a pass to Harry Douglas, but also produced pressure regularly.
The group also produced a momentum-changing turnover when Malcolm Jenkins stripped Jones and Harper recovered, setting up Marques Colston's 25-yard TD catch, which tied the game at 10 in the second quarter.
Drew Brees, who passed for 357 yards and two TDs, gave the Saints the lead for good in the second quarter with a 7-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham.