NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether it was the weirdest interception of Marshon Lattimore’s football life or a ball-dislodging hit by Tyeler Davison near the goal line, the Saints’ defense poetically tipped the scales in a long-awaited playoff-clinching victory.
Shoddy defense was widely seen as the reason the Saints missed the playoffs the last three seasons. Those days are over.
Lattimore corralled a momentum turning interception off his backside, New Orleans made two defensive stands from inside its 2-yard line, and the Saints clinched their first postseason berth since 2013 with a 23-13 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
“We want the team to win because of the defense, not in spite of the defense, and I feel like we’ve all kind of hung our hat on that,” Davison said. “We saw it in our mind and we turned it into real life, man, and it feels amazing. It feels just as you thought it would when you pictured it 100 times.”
Ted Ginn caught a 54-yard pass for a touchdown, which came a few plays after Lattimore’s interception and shortly before halftime. Mark Ingram used a sharp cutback to break loose for a 26-yard touchdown for New Orleans ( 11-4), which kept its tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South heading into the final week of the season.
While the loss eliminated the Falcons (9-6) from the NFC South race, Atlanta can clinch a wild-card berth by beating Carolina in the final regular-season game.
The Falcons entered the game with a second straight division crown within reach, but they needed to beat the Saints. They squandered chances spectacularly, much to the delight of a deafening Superdome crowd — and certainly to the chagrin of scattered fans wearing Falcons red. The Falcons were taunted on their way to the game by a plane towing a banner that read “28-3 Merry Xmas,” a reference to Atlanta’s Super Bowl collapse.
Atlanta trailed 6-0 when Lattimore’s interception of Matt Ryan set the Saints up to double their lead.
Early in the third quarter, Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a pass that deflected off Ginn’s hands and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 2. But Devonta Freeman fumbled on a hit by Davison two plays later and linebacker Manti Teo recovered.
“That was my fault,” Freeman said. “No matter what play is called, you’ve got to get in the end zone and score, and I’ve got to protect the ball. I’ve got to do better at that. I’m going to do whatever it takes to fix it.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Freeman was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1, preserving a 20-3 Saints lead. One play earlier, Julio Jones caught a third-down pass with his feet in the end zone, but he was unable to pull the ball across the goal line after reaching back to make the catch. Atlanta challenged the spot, but the call on the field was upheld.
“That’s kind of the tale of the day,” Ryan said. “We can’t do that in these type of games and we missed too many opportunities.”
Lattimore, drafted 11th overall last spring out of Ohio State, said he’d never had a more unusual interception at any level of football. Lattimore had been beaten on the play and launched into a desperate dive as Ryan’s high pass deflected off the hands of receiver Marvin Hall and fell on Lattimore as he lay face down.
He curled his leg up on the ball to try to prevent it from touching the ground, reached back with his right hand to swipe it from players from both teams who grasped at it.
“I felt the ball on the back of my leg. I knew it didn’t touch the ground because everybody was trying to fight for it,” Lattimore said . “I just went back and reached for it and got it.”
Drew Brees completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards. Ginn finished with 76 yards receiving and Michael Thomas — who’d been listed as questionable with a hamstring injury — caught four passes for 66 yards. Brees became the third quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 70,000 career yards passing, joining Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
Ryan was 22 of 36 for 288 yards. He was sacked five times, twice by Cameron Jordan.
Jones had seven catches for 149 yards, but the Falcons’ running game struggled.
Freeman was held to 36 yards on 11 carries.
Falcons: Tight end Levine Toilolo was sidelined by a knee injury in the second half.
Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left the game in the second half with a thigh injury.
Falcons: Finish regular season at home against the Panthers.
Saints: Try to wrap up the division title at Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.