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  === Late defensive stop helps Saints overcome Falcons in Payton's return ===
 
 New  Orleans,  LA (Sports  Network) - Drew  Brees threw for  357 yards and two
 touchdowns,  and the  New Orleans Saints' much-maligned defense came up with a
 huge  stop late to preserve a 23-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that gave
 head coach Sean Payton a triumphant return to the sidelines.
 
 A  unit that  surrendered an  NFL-record 7,042  total yards  last season  held
 Atlanta's  potent  offense scoreless over  its final  four drives. the last of
 which  ended when  Roman Harper intercepted Matt  Ryan in the end zone on 4th-
 and-goal with 43 seconds left.
 
 Brees  did  his part  as  well,  shaking  off  a second-half  interception  to
 complete 26-of-35 throws that included a 7-yard connection  with  Jimmy Graham
 that  put New Orleans  (1-0) up 20-17 with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
 
 Darren  Sproles  hauled in  six of  Brees' passes for  88 yards, while Marques
 Colston  had five  catches for 68 yards  and a touchdown to help make Payton a
 winner  in his first game back from a year-long suspension for his involvement
 in the Saints' well-publicized bounty scandal.
 
 "It  was  just important to  get the first  win," said Payton afterward. "It's
 good  to start the  season that way. I thought we fought hard, especially late
 in the game."
 
 Ryan  finished  with 304 yards  on 25-of-38  passing with two touchdowns along
 with  the pivotal pick. Julio Jones had seven receptions totaling 76 yards and
 a  touchdown  for defending  NFC  South  champion  Atlanta (0-1),  with  Harry
 Douglas compiling 93 yards on four grabs in the loss.
 
 The usually aggressive Payton opted to play it safe with New Orleans holding a
 three-point  lead  with under four minutes  to go, bringing on Garrett Hartley
 for  a  22-yard field  goal try on  a 4th-and-2 situation  from the Atlanta 4.
 Hartley knocked home his third 3-pointer of the afternoon to give the Saints a
 23-17  edge with  3:12 left,  leaving  the game's  fate  in the  hands of  the
 revamped defense under Rob Ryan.
 
 The  decision looked  questionable  after Matt  Ryan  completed four  straight
 passes  to march  the Falcons inside the Saints' 30 by the two-minute warning,
 and  a  20-yard hookup with  Douglas created a  1st-and-goal at the seven with
 1:09 remaining.
 
 Matt  Ryan's  next attempt fell  incomplete and  Roddy White managed just four
 yards  on  the following  play. Matt  Ryan then found  Steven Jackson over the
 middle for a would-be touchdown that the veteran running back had slip off his
 hands to bring on fourth down.
 
 The  Saints brought the  blitz on the deciding snap, forcing the Atlanta QB to
 loft  the ball off  his back foot for Tony Gonzalez into a crowd. The ball was
 tipped in the air and landed in the arms of Harper to seal the win.
 
 "I thought it was a well-executed two-minute drive until we got inside the 10-
 yard  line and we  had some opportunities to make the plays and we did not get
 them done," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith.
 
 Atlanta moved the ball with ease on its initial drive of the second half, with
 Jackson ripping off a 50-yard run off right tackle on the second play and Matt
 Ryan  hitting Jones in  the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown just over a minute
 later that put the Falcons up by a 17-13 count.
 
 The  Saints stiffened  thereafter,  inducing two  straight three-and-outs  and
 sacking  Matt Ryan  twice over that stretch. Prior to the first failed series,
 Brees carved up the Atlanta secondary in leading a 10-play, 80-yard jaunt that
 sent New Orleans back in front.
 
 Brees  hit on 6-of-7 throws for 74 yards on the go-ahead possession, capped by
 his  7-yard  strike to Graham  in the  right flat that  staked the Saints to a
 three-point advantage.
 
 The standout signal-caller was on the mark as well to put New Orleans again in
 scoring  range with  time winding  down. Brees  dropped in  a 32-yard  pass to
 Sproles on a wheel route, then later teamed with Colston for a 19-yard gain to
 the  Atlanta 12 on 3rd-and-14 to help set up Hartley's kick that increased the
 lead to 23-17.
 
 Atlanta  struck  first following an exchange  of punts to start the game. Matt
 Ryan hit Douglas on a crossing pattern that the slot receiver took 50 yards to
 the  New  Orleans 10, then  later rolled out before  firing a dart to Gonzalez
 from seven yards away that gave Atlanta a 7-0 edge around 6 1/2 minutes in.
 
 Payton  then  gambled on the  ensuing possession,  running a play on 4th-and-1
 from the Saints' 47 in which Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent stuffed Mark Ingram
 for a loss.
 
 Atlanta promptly moved back into scoring range, highlighted by Matt Ryan's 12-
 yard  scramble on  3rd-and-6  that  was coupled  by  an unnecessary  roughness
 penalty  on New  Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro that created a 1st-and-goal situation.
 The  Saints' defense  held, however, and the Falcons settled for Matt Bryant's
 23-yard field goal and a 10-0 advantage.
 
 New Orleans responded with a 12-play, 50-yard sequence that featured a 21-yard
 grab  by  Graham on 3rd-and-9  and culminated  in Hartley's 48-yard field goal
 with  just over  four  minutes  elapsed in  the  second  quarter. The  defense
 continued  the momentum on Atlanta's next series, with Malcolm Jenkins forcing
 a  fumble from  Jones that  Harper scooped  up and  returned 19  yards to  the
 Falcons' 31.
 
 Three plays later, Colston made an acrobatic catch on a well-thrown Brees deep
 ball for a 25-yard touchdown that knotted the score at 10-10.
 
 "The  turnovers we  thought would be important in the game, and certainly they
 were in this one," Payton remarked.
 
 Brees delivered another pinpoint pass on New Orleans' subsequent drive, a dart
 to  Kenny  Stills that  the rookie  broke free  for a  67-yard gain inside the
 Atlanta  10. A pair  of penalties from guard Jahri Evans backed the Saints up,
 however, causing Hartley to come on for a 31-yard field goal shortly after the
 two-minute warning.
 
                                   Game Notes
 
 Colston's  touchdown  grab was his  533rd career catch  as a Saint, moving him
 past  Eric Martin for the franchise lead in receptions ... Jackson amassed 122
 total  yards  (77 rushing, 45  receiving) in the former  Ram's first game as a
 Falcon  ...  New Orleans  cornerbacks Keenan Lewis  (leg) and Patrick Robinson
 (foot)  each  exited the  game with injuries,  while defensive tackle Brodrick
 Bunkley  did not  return after hurting his  lower leg in the first quarter ...
 Brees  now has  412 career completions against Atlanta, surpassing Joe Montana
 (398)  for the most by an opposing quarterback against the Falcons ... Atlanta
 cornerback Asante Samuel was inactive due to a thigh injury.
 
 
 
 09/08 18:30:07 ET