ATLANTA – The Atlanta Falcons moved to the brink of clinching a division championship.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints wound up with egg on their faces.
After racing to a 17-0 lead, the Falcons turned to their defense to make it stand up, picking off five of Brees’ passes and ending his NFL-record touchdown streak in a 23-13 victory over the Saints on Thursday night.
The Falcons (11-1) will clinch a playoff spot if Seattle loses or ties in Chicago or the NFC South title with a month to go if Tampa Bay loses or ties at Denver on Sunday.
They also dealt a big blow to the Saints (5-7) and their fading playoff hopes.
William Moore had two of the five interceptions, which were the most of Brees’ career and came four days after he had two passes picked off and returned for touchdowns in a loss to San Francisco.
Brees had thrown a touchdown pass in 54 consecutive games, breaking Johnny Unitas’ long-standing record of 47 earlier this season. He had an apparent scoring pass to Darren Sproles late in the first half, but it was nullified by a penalty.
“I didn’t realize that until we walked off the field,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s an unbelievable streak. Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback. The way the defense played tonight speaks volumes. The guy had gone out there and thrown touchdown after touchdown, game after game after game.”
When the Saints arrived in Atlanta, their bus was pelted by eggs at the airport, a sign of the long rivalry between the teams. New Orleans had dominated in recent years, winning four in a row and 11 out of 13.
This time, Michael Turner scored on Atlanta’s opening possession, Tony Gonzalez hauled in a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan, and Matt Bryant kicked three field goals, including a 55-yarder.
The defense did the rest. Thomas DeCoud, Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux also had interceptions for Atlanta, and another pick by Corey Peters was wiped out by a penalty.
Brees had had a couple of games with four picks, but nothing like this. He finished 28-for-50 passing for 341 yards.
The defending NFC South champion Saints lost their second in a row and will likely have to win out to have even a faint hope of making the postseason during a tumultuous season that was marred by a bounty scandal and a season-long suspension for coach Sean Payton.
After winning so many close games, the Falcons started this one as if they were intent on a rout.
Ryan completed a pass on the first play from scrimmage, then turned it over to a running game that has struggled most of the season. Turner burst around right end for a 35-yard gain. Jacquizz Rodgers broke off two straight 14-yard gains. Finally, it was Turner going in standing from 3 yards out, giving Atlanta a quick 7-0 lead.
That was Turner’s 58th touchdown in five seasons with the Falcons, breaking the team record he had shared with Terance Mathis.
Atlanta struck again in the opening minute of the second period on Ryan’s 17-yard TD pass to Gonzalez in the back of the end zone.