The New Orleans Saints are still perfect, which is all that matters.
They’re not the least bit worried about another close call.
Drew Brees threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns, Jonathan Vilma came up with two huge defensive plays, and the Saints pulled out another tight win, 26-23 over the pesky Falcons yesterday in Atlanta.
A week ago, New Orleans (13-0) appeared on the verge of losing until Washington missed a chip-shot field goal in regulation. The Saints rallied for a 33-30 overtime win.
This time, they struggled to hold off an Atlanta team that was missing injured stars Matt Ryan and Michael Turner. The result was in doubt until Vilma came up with a crushing fourth-down hit on Jason Snelling, stopping him a yard short of the marker with just over a minute remaining.
Is another 3-point win cause for concern?
“Why would we be concerned? We’re 13-0,’’ Vilma said. “You’re not going to get many blowout wins in the NFL.’’
Or, as Brees said, “We call that being battle-tested.’’
While lacking in style points, New Orleans set a franchise record for wins in a season, clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs, and moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
“It’s only going to get harder from here on out,’’ Brees said. But “no matter what the situation, we always feel like we have an opportunity to win. Whether it’s our offense, defense, or special teams, somehow we’re going to find a way to win the game.’’
Garrett Hartley put New Orleans ahead on a 38-yard field goal with a 4:42 remaining after the Falcons (6-7) rallied from two touchdowns down to tie it at 23.
Atlanta still had a couple of chances to pull out an improbable victory. Vilma stopped them both.
First, the linebacker dropped into coverage to pick off a pass that Chris Redman, filling in again for Ryan, intended for Roddy White over the middle. The Saints failed to score any points off that miscue, attempting a fake field goal that didn’t work.
The Falcons were trying to get into field goal range when they faced fourth and 2 at the New Orleans 46. Redman threw short to Snelling, but Vilma plastered the running back for only a 1-yard gain.
Redman was 23 of 34 for 303 yards but got little help from the ground game with Turner out. Snelling was Atlanta’s top rusher with 37 yards on 10 carries.
Filling in for injured rookie Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens completed 12 of 23 passes for just 111 yards, but he guided the Jets to a 19-0 halftime lead. New York held the Bucs (1-12) to 15 yards before the break.
Tampa Bay rookie Josh Freeman was intercepted three times, giving him eight in two games. Darrelle Revis returned a fourth-quarter pick 54 yards to the Bucs’ 7, setting up Jones’s second TD on the next play.
Ricky Williams ran for 108 yards and a score for Miami and Henne finished 21 of 29 for 220 yards.
The Dolphins held Maurice Jones-Drew to 59 yards and a TD and forced six three-and-outs on Jacksonville’s first eight possessions. With 1:20 remaining, Miami stuffed David Garrard at midfield on fourth and 3, killing the Jaguars’ final threat.
The Bengals (9-4) committed 11 penalties for 85 yards, failing in their first chance to clinch the AFC North. The league’s stingiest defense in scoring and third downs gave up a season-high 30 points and let the Vikings convert 8 of 14 third-down chances.
Brett Favre wasn’t great, completing 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards, one TD, and an interception, but he still outplayed the Bengals’ Carson Palmer, who was 15 of 25 for a season-low 94 yards and one score. Peterson finished with 97 yards, 1 more than Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson, who fell short of 100 for the first time in a month.
The Bears (5-8) were eliminated from the playoff picture, making it three straight postseason misses since the 2006 team’s Super Bowl run. Jay Cutler threw for two scores, but he was also picked off twice; the second interception was returned 32 yards by Nick Collins to set up Grant’s deciding TD.
Detroit dropped its 19th straight on the road. The Lions (2-11) lost running back Kevin Smith to a serious knee injury in the fourth quarter. Daunte Culpepper, starting in place of injured rookie Matthew Stafford, passed for only 135 yards and two interceptions.
The Titans (6-7) must win out and get plenty of help after their 0-6 start. But they started a three-game homestand with a rout, despite losing quarterback Vince Young to a strained hamstring in the first half. Tennessee turned five interceptions into 20 points and held Steven Jackson, the lone offensive threat for the Rams (1-12), to 47 yards on 19 carries.
Johnson had a season-high 193 yards receiving. The Texans’ only second-half score came on Bernard Pollard’s 70-yard interception return. That was part of a rough day for the Seahawks (5-8) and Matt Hasselbeck, who also had three fumbles and was sacked three times.
Trailing by 4 entering the final quarter, Oakland (4-9) unraveled without quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who partially sprained ligaments in both knees. JaMarcus Russell played the second half and threw for 84 yards, and his interception led to Ganther’s second TD. The Redskins sacked Russell six times and finished with eight, four by rookie Brian Orakpo.