ATLANTA — One down, 11 to go.
The New Orleans Saints became the first NFL team to clinch a playoff spot, winning the NFC South on Thanksgiving night and serving up some revenge on the rival Atlanta Falcons for good measure.
The Saints (10-2) sacked Matt Ryan nine times while beating Atlanta 26-18 just 18 days after their stunning 26-9 loss in the Superdome to these same Falcons (3-9).
The New England Patriots (10-1) and San Francisco 49ers (10-1) could also clinch playoff berths this weekend.
“This was objective No. 1, obviously, win the division,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But I think you know our mindset and the group of guys we have in there, and just kind of how we’ve progressed each and every year. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, so to speak.”
Indeed, the championship T-shirts being worn throughout the celebratory locker room read, “The South Is Not Enough.”
As of now, the Saints are the 15th team to clinch a division title in Week 13 or earlier since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Only one of those teams went on to win a Super Bowl, and that team was the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
New Orleans will have a chance to improve its playoff seeding next weekend, with a crucial home date against the 49ers.
“We made it a little bit more difficult than it should’ve been,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who called it “embarrassing” that the Falcons recovered two onside kicks late in the game. “And yet our guys battled and hung in there. Defensively I thought we played outstanding.
“Look, it doesn’t happen much before Thanksgiving. This is our sixth [division title] now, third in a row. It’s one of the goals, and for it to happen this early, it’s the first step. It’s hard to win in this league, it’s hard to win on the road. I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of Mrs. B (owner Gayle Benson), ownership. You know, a lot of work goes into putting the right team together. And it’s a challenging business. It’s all worth it when you win and you have a chance and you’re playing for something.”
The Saints were far from perfect Thursday, thanks to the onside kicks, their latest barrage of penalties and some dropped passes by Jared Cook and Michael Thomas (his first since Week 7 of last season).
But they built an early lead thanks to their Swiss Army knife backup quarterback, Taysom Hill, who deflected a punt, caught a 3-yard touchdown pass and ran for a 30-yard score in the first half. Hill’s four TD catches this season are more than that of Odell Beckham Jr. and Davante Adams combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Then the Saints’ defense closed out the game with second-half interceptions by rookie defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and rookie safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, a forced fumble by defensive end Marcus Davenport and the relentless pressure on Ryan.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan had four of the Saints’ sacks, setting a career high and tying a franchise record.
“It hurts because I could’ve had five. I’m trying to make these nights special,” said Jordan, who now has a career-high 13.5 sacks on the season. “We knew if we shut down that run, [Ryan] was gonna have to pass. … That was the real main difference from the first game to the second game.”
Brees had a quiet night, completing 18 of 30 passes for 184 yards. But his pass to Hill tied him with Tom Brady for second in NFL history with 532 touchdown passes as they race to break Peyton Manning’s record of 539.
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