NFL: Saints defeat Falcons 23-17
New Orleans • Sean Payton's return to the sideline is one game old and already the Saints are celebrating a dramatic victory over a presumed title contender.
They're alone in first place, too.
Drew Brees passed for 357 yards and two scores, Roman Harper intercepted Matt Ryan's tipped fourth-down pass in the end zone, and New Orleans held on for a 23-17 victory over the Falcons on Sunday.
"I was hoping our defense would pull one out, and man, did they ever," Brees said.
Last season, while suspended in connection with the NFL's bounty probe, Payton watched helplessly from afar as the Saints fielded one of the worst defenses ever, yielding a single-season record 7,042 yards. One of his first moves upon reinstatement was to hire Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator.
Payton put the new product on the field right away, electing to kick off when the Saints won the coin toss.
"Sean sent the defense out first, which you would never have seen in the past," Harper said. "So just a whole different feel and the things that we're trying to accomplish, this is just one step in the right direction."
Brees' first touchdown went to Marques Colston, who made a diving, 25-yard snag for his 533rd catch, setting a franchise record. "That's just vintage Marques Colston," Brees said. "I have so much trust and confidence in him. He knows the ball's coming to him and he's going to make that play."
Atlanta's Ryan passed for 304 yards and touchdown passes to Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones. In the final three minutes, Ryan quickly drove Atlanta to the Saints 3 before the New Orleans defense stiffened.
"When we play the Saints, it's usually hard-fought, and it turned out that way again," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "We have to protect the quarterback a lot better."