METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints had an opportunity to take control of the NFC South.
But when they lost to the Falcons, 20-17, on Thursday night in Atlanta, the division race tightened. The loss dropped New Orleans to 9-4 as Atlanta improved to 8-5. Those teams meet again in New Orleans on Dec. 24. Carolina (8-4) also is in the thick of the race.
The Saints have extra time before they play host to the New York Jets on Dec. 17.
The Saints lost half a dozen players to injury during the game — running back Alvin Kamara (concussion), guard Senio Kelemete (concussion), wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (undisclosed), linebacker A.J. Klein (groin), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin).
“The best thing about Thursday games is that we have a little bit of extra time to recuperate and recover to get ready for the next game,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “This one stings a little bit extra because it is a (division) game. Those type of games are the ones that we want to win.”
“It wasn’t worth the risk right there, especially when you know that you have points,” Brees said. “It’s not like you have to have a touchdown to tie. We could have kicked the field goal. I’m just disappointed in the result there. I should not have taken that chance.”
The Saints hold the tiebreaker over Carolina after winning both meetings and they can negate the Falcons win Thursday by winning the rematch.
“We control our destiny,” Brees said, “so we’ve got to win.”
New Orleans has lost two of its last three games after winning eight straight.
The Saints were penalized 11 times for 87 yards and nine of the Falcons’ 26 first downs came by penalty. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton was critical of the officiating Friday.
“I thought the officiating was extremely poor,” Payton said. “Inconsistent would be a great way to put it. I thought that had a lot to do with the way this game ended.
“I think it has been a problem all year and it’s something that’s going to have to be addressed from a leadership standpoint at the top in our league office. It’s frustrating when you have a game, instead of it being decided on the field like it’s supposed to, you have a crew make so many mistakes in one event.”
REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS
—PASSING OFFENSE: B — The passing game was fine until QB Drew Brees threw a crippling interception with less than two minutes remaining in the game. The Saints were in position for a chip-shot tying field goal when Brees was intercepted by Deion Jones in the end zone as he tried to connect with TE Josh Hill. Brees finished 26 of 35 for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
—RUSHING OFFENSE: D — The Saints lost RB Alvin Kamara early in the game, Mark Ingram II was playing with a sore toe, G Andrus Peat (groin) was sidelined and Peat’s replacement, Senio Kelemete, was lost to a concussion. The running game was never much of a factor as New Orleans rushed the ball just 15 times and averaged a meager 3.3 yards.
—PASS DEFENSE: A — The Saints intercepted Matt Ryan three times as the secondary was boosted by CB Marshon Lattimore‘s return. The rookie No. 1 draft choice went head-to-head with Falcons All-Pro WR Julio Jones, who caught five of 11 targets for 98 yards. Ryan finished 15 of 27 for 221 yards and a touchdown.
—RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus — The Falcons averaged just 3.6 yards in rushing for 132 yards, but their rushing success on first and second downs put them in manageable situations that helped them convert 7-of-12 third downs. Devonta Freeman rushed 24 times for 91 yards and a touchdown.
—SPECIAL TEAMS: C — An illegal formation penalty cost the Saints a field goal on the final play of the first half. Other than that, the special teams performance was mostly nondescript. Wil Lutz made a 34-yard field goal, P Thomas Morstead was solid and the return and coverage units were average.
—COACHING: B-plus — The Saints had a good plan and managed to mitigate a half-dozen losses to injury during the game. But Payton’s unsportsmanlike penalty for going on the field while calling a timeout in the final minute cost New Orleans a chance to possibly get the ball back for one last chance.