NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes to inexperienced receivers and the Saints won their 10th straight game Thursday night with a 31-17 victory that eliminated the Falcons from contention in the NFC South.
Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr each caught his second career touchdown pass, and rookie tight end Dan Arnold and rookie receiver Keith Kirkwood each grabbed grabbed his first. All four entered the NFL as undrafted free agents within the past three years and had combined for zero touchdowns this season before Carr caught the first of his career last Sunday.
“It says a lot about them. It says a lot about taking advantage of the opportunity, and stepping up when we need it,” Brees said of his latest touchdown targets. “It’s fun to watch them grow and gain confidence. We’re building chemistry, which typically takes time, right? But they’ve been thrust into this role.”
The Falcons (4-7) lost three fumbles inside the Saints 20 — something no team facing streaking New Orleans (10-1) can afford this season.
“The defense played tremendous today against a really explosive offense,” Brees said. “They got four turnovers. That’s a huge stat in the game.”
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was stripped by safety Marcus Williams on a third-and-2 from the Saints’ 3 and Williams recovered to end Atlanta’s opening drive. Julio Jones was stripped by linebacker Alex Anzalone after a catch on the New Orleans 17, and safety Vonn Bell recovered in the final minute of the second quarter to preserve a 17-3 lead going into halftime.
“Any time you have a turnover when they’re in a threatening position — just do the numbers, do the math,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The New Orleans defense, which had a season-high six sacks, continued to come up with big plays in the second half. Anzalone broke up a fourth-down pass in the third quarter and linebacker A.J. Klein intercepted a pass tipped by defensive tackle Tyeler Davison in the fourth.
The interception gave the Saints possession on the Atlanta 22, setting up Kirkwood’s diving 4-yard TD catch.
Just for good measure, Marshon Lattimore stripped Calvin Ridley on the Saints’ 1 after a 29-yard completion that looked as though it would end with a touchdown with about four minutes to go. Defensive back Eli Apple, the former Giant, recovered that one.
“When you have one turnover [in the red zone], it feels like a lot,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We had three down there and that was the real story of the game.”