NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees made Atlanta pay for losing track of his inexperienced receivers, and New Orleans’ defense halted several promising Falcons drives with forced fumbles they could not afford.
Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr each caught his second career touchdown pass, rookie tight end Dan Arnold and rookie receiver Keith Kirkwood each grabbed their first, and the Saints won their 10th straight game with a 31-17 victory Thursday night that eliminated Atlanta from contention in the NFC South.
All four players entered the NFL as undrafted free agents within the past three years.
“I love that stat,” Brees said. “That’s one of my favorite ones.”
They also had combined for zero touchdowns this season before Carr caught the first of his career last Sunday.
“It says a lot about taking advantage of the opportunity,” Brees said. “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.”
Meanwhile, the Falcons (4-7) lost three fumbles inside the Saints 20 — tough for any team to overcome against streaking New Orleans (10-1) this season.
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.
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.
“I do love the way that we played today,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had two sacks. “I do love the four turnovers. I do love the sacks. I do love the pressures. I do love the quarterback hits. For all terms and purposes, we had our Thanksgiving.”
Klein’s interception gave the Saints possession on the Atlanta 22, setting up Kirkwood’s diving 4-yard TD catch.
With about four minutes left, cornerback Marshon Lattimore stripped Calvin Ridley on the Saints 1 after a 29-yard completion that looked as though it would end in a touchdown. Defensive back Eli Apple 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.”
Ryan was under pressure all night from a Saints defense that was bolstered by the return of first-round draft choice Marcus Davenport from a toe injury that sidelined him for three games. Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams, Sheldon Rankins and Demario Davis each had a sack.
Ryan finished 35 of 47 for 377 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But little came easy. His first TD pass, to Ridley, came on fourth down from the 2 late in the third quarter.
Atlanta rushed for just 26 yards. New Orleans finished with 150, led by Alvin Kamara’s 89 and Mark Ingram’s 52.
Statistically, Brees did not have one of his more impressive games, completing 15 of 22 passes for 171 yards with his second interception of the season. The pick was snagged by Damontae Kazee, his NFL-leading sixth this year.
Brees’ ability to play to the strengths of unheralded receivers allowed the Saints to cash in on scoring opportunities. A week earlier, he found rookie Tre’Quan Smith 10 times for 157 yards and a TD, but Smith was ruled out against Atlanta with a foot injury. Another receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., has been out with a knee injury since Week 5.
Lewis, a third-year pro, was in his first game back after nine weeks on injured reserve and had not caught a pass all season before getting wide open for his 28-yard grab that made it 7-0. Carr is a second-year pro who played in only one game without a catch as a rookie. He, too, was wide open after Falcons defenders bit on a fake to Ingram. Kirkwood made his NFL debut three games ago, when Arnold had his first career catch.
“Obviously, Drew is someone who is very confident in the preparation, confident in players around him. There’s a lot that goes into that,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I’m excited for those guys that got opportunities.”
The Falcons’ dimming playoff hopes hang on catching up in the wild-card race, and they trail Minnesota (5-4-1) by two games for the last spot.
“It’s rough right now for us. You don’t want guys to quit,” Jones said. “This is the time you get to see what guys are really like.”
Falcons linebacker Kemal Ishmael was helped off the field in the third quarter after a punt.
Falcons host Baltimore Dec. 2.
Saints visit Dallas on Thursday night.