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Ryan, defense lead Falcons over Saints
Atlanta Falcons defender David Irons, top, breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints receiver Jeremy Shockey, bottom, in the second half of their NFL football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday - photo by By Dave Martin

Holloway: Picture it, the Falcons in the playoffs

Falcons notebook from Sunday's game

ATLANTA — When John Abraham wasn't bearing down on him, Drew Brees had to contend with all those pesky Atlanta defensive backs, constantly getting in the way of his throws.

It was a miserable afternoon for the NFL's most prolific passer.

While Atlanta rookie Matt Ryan turned in another solid performance, Brees threw a season-high three interceptions, the last of them returned 95 yards for a touchdown by Chevis Jackson, and the Falcons beat up on the New Orleans Saints 34-20 Sunday.

Ryan had two more touchdown passes for the Falcons (6-3), who won for the fourth time in five games to remain in the thick of the playoff race, having defied those who expected a rebuilding year or two after the Michael Vick debacle.

"We have to stop using the word 'surprise,"' safety Lawyer Milloy said. "We always felt like we had a chance."

Ryan connected with Roddy White for a 16-yard touchdown on the Falcons' second possession, then broke it open with a short pass to Jerious Norwood that the speedy running back took for a 67-yard touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter for a 27-6 lead.

Jackson finished off New Orleans with the second-longest interception return for a touchdown in Falcons' history. He broke perfectly on a pass for Devery Henderson at the 5 and took off down the sideline with no one else around, high-stepping right in front of the New Orleans bench.

"I had clear sailing," Jackson said. "The whole defense had a good day."

Brees, who came into the week leading the NFL in passes, completions and yards, didn't get the Saints to the end zone until the fourth quarter with the Falcons comfortably ahead. Of course, he spent much of the game trying to get away from the Atlanta rush.

Abraham had another sack, his 11th of the season, and forced Brees to throw quicker than he wanted at least four other times. Keith Brooking also had a sack.

At one point, Brees rolled to his right looking to throw, but was forced to flee in the opposite direction. He wound up 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage before winding up near the Saints' sideline, where he just flung it out of bounds while falling backward.

"This was extremely frustrating," Brees said. "We're better than this."

The Saints (4-5) again failed to string together their first winning streak of the season, a severe blow to their postseason hopes in the highly competitive NFC South.

With Reggie Bush still recovering from a knee injury and the Saints barely bothering with a running game, Brees also was picked off by Chris Houston and Erik Coleman. Jackson and Domonique Foxworth each broke up three passes for the Falcons.

Brees did throw his second TD pass on the final play, a 32-yarder to Lance Moore. Not that it mattered. Playing from behind most of the way, he threw a staggering 58 passes — 10 more than he'd attempted in any game this season and just two off his career high. He completed 31 for 422 yards, but most of those gaudy numbers were put up after the Falcons had put it away.

As for the interceptions, Brees said, "I look at all three and just shake my head."

Ryan had the better performance with a lot less wear and tear on his arm. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 248 yards and made no big mistakes. The rookie spread it around, hooking up with Michael Jenkins on six passes for 72 yards, while White had five receptions for 68 yards. Michael Turner took care of the running game, carrying 27 times for 96 yards.

But Norwood, Turner's backup, had the biggest play of all after Atlanta used up a good chunk of the third quarter on a drive that led to Jason Elam's second field goal.

Ryan faked a handoff, then swung a pass to Norwood in the flat. The blockers provided a big hole and he did the rest, bursting down the sideline for the longest pass play of his career.

"We feel like any time we get the ball in his hands, he has a chance to go for a touchdown," Ryan said.

As if things weren't bad enough for the Saints, cornerback Mike McKenzie was taken off the field on a cart after fracturing his right kneecap. The 32-year-old is likely out for the year and his career could be in jeopardy after his second major injury in as many seasons.

<B>Notes:<P> The Falcons improved to 4-0 on their home field, the team's best start at the Georgia Dome since the 1998 Super Bowl season. ... Abraham banged his left shoulder while rushing Brees late in the first half and to come out. The Falcons star managed to finish the game, but wiggled his the arm uncomfortably at times. "I feel great," he said. "Just a little beat up." ... Henderson ran for 30 yards on his lone carry, which made him the Saints' leading rusher. New Orleans attempted only 17 running plays. ... White's TD catch was his sixth of the season, a career high. ... Atlanta snapped a streak of four straight losses against its division rival. New Orleans swept both meetings in 2006 and '07.

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