NEW ORLEANS – Just like last season, Matt Ryan had the Atlanta Falcons achingly close to a late go-ahead touchdown against New Orleans at the Superdome.
Again, they could not finish the deal.
Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro deflected Ryans fourth-down throw for tight end Tony Gonzalez into the hands of safety Roman Harper for the clinching interception in the end zone with 43 seconds left.
The Saints held on, winning 23-17.
The painful ending was eerily similar to a year ago. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer knocked down Ryans fourth-down pass for Roddy White from the 2 to preserve a 31-27 New Orleans victory. Only that time, the Falcons were 8-0 and headed for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. This time, they fell a game behind the Saints in a division that has not had a repeat champion since its formation in 2002.
Any time you lose it stinks, and certainly today it stinks that we didnt get the outcome that we wanted, Ryan said. We gave ourselves a chance, and we just fell short. The biggest part of being a professional is being able to move on. Theres 15 more to go and lots of ball to be played.
Ryan, who drove the Falcons 77 yards to the New Orleans 3 on their final possession, started to celebrate when his third-and-goal pass reached running back Steven Jackson at the goal line. But the ball bounced off Jacksons hands even before Saints linebacker Ramon Humber hit him.
When my number is called, I expect to make the play, Jackson said. I dropped the ball.
It wasnt the easiest catch, but Im not a person to make excuses.
The fourth-down pass was not as close, leaving the Falcons with a familiar empty feeling. They have lost seven of their last eight in New Orleans.
Across the field was a relieved Sean Payton, enjoying his latest win against his NFC South rivals in what was his regular-season return to the sideline from his bounty ban.
It was just important to get the first win, Payton said. You try to compartmentalize each week, each game, and we played a good team. ... We fought hard, especially late in the game.