For the second week in a row, the formerly 0-4 Saints got an opportunity to enjoy a much-needed victory -- but only to a certain degree.
The reason: some inconsistency on offense, especially on third-down conversions, and some big pass plays on defense, which has been a major problem all season. But they played just well enough to make the right plays on both sides of the ball when they needed them Sunday against the Falcons (1-6).
"Things weren't pretty all of the time -- especially early on with the offense," coach Sean Payton said. "But we did a pretty good job in the second half, and defensively, we did a better job getting to the quarterback. I was pleased that they hung in there."
Still, the Saints haven't erased all of the doubt that came from their winless start, but they're creeping closer and closer toward respectability. Two wins won't mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it's better than having the season go down the drain before the midway point.
"Obviously, it's one at a time," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We just have to focus on week-to-week, not get too far ahead of ourselves, and we'll continue to get back in the direction we want it headed."
A year ago at this time, the Saints (2-4) were 5-1 and flying into their bye week. While their winning ways may be back, their swagger isn't.
"I think we have played better football, and, as a result, we have won a couple of games," Payton said. "There is a lot to improve on."
But the sense of relief was still palpable in the locker room.
"We definitely feel like we're getting on a roll," strong safety Roman Harper said. "We've got two in a row, and we feel like we're getting in a position to get more as long as we keep playing the way we are."
--While former Saints WR Joe Horn was critical of coach Sean Payton when he was released by the team March 1, Sunday's reunion with his old team was not as contentious as some might have expected.
Horn, a member of the Saints from 2000-06 and the holder of numerous club receiving records, came back to the Superdome with the Atlanta Falcons for the first time. Horn was booed roundly by a capacity crowd while catching three passes for 25 yards, but he said he made his peace with Payton.
"I gave him a hug. All that other stuff doesn't matter no more," said Horn, one of the more popular players in franchise history. "(Payton) has a job to do. I'm an Atlanta Falcon now.
"I respect what he's done for this organization. Bygones are bygones. That's a chapter, a saga in my life with Coach Payton that is gone. That's water under the bridge."
--Horn wasn't alone in hearing the boo-birds during Sunday's game. Falcons kicker Morten Andersen, who is still the Saints' all-time leading scorer, was booed whenever he trotted onto the field.
But Andersen, who played for the Saints from 1982-94 and scored 1,318 points -- more than twice as many as runner-up John Carney -- got the last laugh.
After having a short field-goal attempt blocked in last season's game in the Superdome, Andersen hit all three of his field-goals attempts from 38, 33, and 21 yards out and his only extra-point try.
--WR Devery Henderson scored his first touchdown of the season on a 37-yard catch from Drew Brees with 7:16 left in the first quarter against the Falcons.
Henderson, who lost his starting job because of a season-long funk in which he dropped eight passes in the first five games, got a little too carried away, however.
After beating LB Michael Boley on the play, Henderson got up and spiked the ball as Boley lay in front of him. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty was called, forcing Olindo Mare to kick off from his own 15 instead of the 30.
"I wasn't even worried about (the penalty)," said Henderson, "I was so excited."
--RDE Will Smith has only one sack this season, but he's been a human wrecking ball for opposing quarterbacks.
Smith, who led the Saints with 10 1/2 sacks last season, got to Falcons QB Byron Leftwich in the third quarter -- forcing Leftwich to leave the game with a sprained right ankle.
It was the third time this season Smith has sent an opponent's quarterback to the sideline with an injury in six games. The others were Tennessee's Vince Young, who injured his right wrist, and Carolina's David Carr, who injured his back. Both returned to the game, however.
--Saints coach Sean Payton praised his defense after watching tapes of his team's win over the Falcons.
Payton said one of the keys to the victory was holding the Falcons down in the red zone. The Falcons drove inside the Saints 20-yard line three times, but they got only one touchdown and two chip-shot field goals out of them.
--The Saints' 22-16 win over the Falcons on Sunday wasn't anything unusual in the longtime series of Deep South rivals.
The two teams have now met 77 times -- including a playoff encounter in 1991 -- and 38 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Falcons hold a 23-15 edge over the Saints in those games.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--C Jeff Faine left Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons after suffering an injury to his left pectoral muscle.
Faine returned late in the second quarter. Saints coach Sean Payton said his status will be updated when the team returns to work on Wednesday.
--C/G Jonathan Goodwin, a six-year veteran, replaced C Jeff Faine (pectoral) in the lineup Sunday and will start this week at San Francisco if Faine can't go.
--RCB Jason David missed his third consecutive game with a fractured left forearm. He practiced on a limited basis late last week, but a timetable for his return to game action is still not known.
--RCB Jason Craft made his third straight start in place of Jason David against the Falcons and will start again Sunday if David is held out another week.
--K Olindo Mare resumed his kickoff duties against the Falcons after punter Steve Weatherford kicked off for two games while Mare was nursing a strained groin.
REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Drew Brees had two touchdown passes for the second consecutive week and the Saints passing game continued to show signs of improvement. Brees was 22-for-34 for 219 yards and TDs of 4 and 37 yards, the latter to Devery Henderson on a perfectly thrown ball after the speedy Henderson drew one-on-one coverage from a linebacker. Brees also threw one interception, but he was not sacked for the third straight game and finished with a passer rating of 90.2. Marques Colston caught three balls for 45 yards, but the big one was a 33-yard catch and run that moved the Saints into Falcons territory for the game-winning TD catch by Reggie Bush with just more than five minutes to play.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The Saints again did a decent job in averaging 4.1 yards a carry, picking up 91 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts. Bush ran 17 times for 54 yards with a long of 9, but rookie Pierre Thomas added 28 yards on two tries. His 24-yard TD run on a draw in the third quarter was a thing of beauty as he weaved his way through the defense, shedding two would-be tackles along the way. The play was set up when coach Sean Payton put Thomas into the backfield, then lined up Bush and Aaron Stecker -- his other two tailbacks -- left and right, respectively, at wide receiver. That spread the Falcons out and gave Thomas a lot of running room in the middle.
PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- The Falcons were able to explore the Saints' biggest weakness on defense when Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington combined to complete 27 of 41 passes for 273 yards with a TD and no interceptions. Leftwich had a long throw of 23 yards and a 9-yard TD pass Roddy White. All told, White had eight receptions for 110 yards and a 32-yard catch from Harrington. Michael Jenkins also was active with six catches for 69 yards with a long of 20. The Saints did apply lots of pressure, recording three sacks and collecting eight other hurries.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Saints held the Falcons to 75 yards on 24 carries, marking the fifth straight week they have held an opponent to less than 100 yards. The Saints did a solid job of swarming to the ball and held Warrick Dunn to 28 yards on 13 attempts. While their performance was solid, it would have been even better had they not given up a 30-yard gain to backup Jerious Norwood. He got only 8 yards on his other five carries, however, and led the Falcons with 38 yards on six attempts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Overall, the Saints did a decent job on returns and kick coverage. Lance Moore had a season-long 48-yard punt return in the first quarter and rookie Pierre Thomas continued to impress in averaging 26.0 yards on three kickoff returns. His 32-yarder in the fourth quarter came after the Falcons took a 16-14 lead and started the Saints' drive to the game-winning touchdown. The Falcons averaged 9.3 yards on three punt returns and 19.0 yards on two kickoffs. Steve Weatherford punted five times for a 38.8 average with one kick downed inside the Falcons' 20.
COACHING: B -- In his regular Monday news conference, Sean Payton said he got into a rut while calling offensive plays in the second and third periods of the win over the Falcons. But his team snapped out of it enough to pile up almost 200 total yards in the second half and put up touchdown drives of 80 and 69 yards to get them over the hump. For the second straight week, the Saints dialed up more pressure on the defensive side of the ball, and their three sacks gave them eight in the last two games. So coming up with the pressure at just the right times was part of the reason the Falcons scored only one touchdown in three trips to the Saints' red zone.