By Paul Newberry
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons raced to a 17-0 lead and the defense made it stand up, picking off five Drew Brees passes and ending his NFL-record touchdown streak with a 23-13 victory Thursday night.
The Falcons moved to the brink of clinching the NFC South and dealt a blow to the Saints (5-7) and their fading playoff hopes. William Moore had two of the five interceptions, which were the most of Brees’s career and came four days after he had two passes picked off and returned for touchdowns in a loss to San Francisco.
Brees (28 of 50 for 341 yards) had thrown a touchdown pass in 54 consecutive games. He had an apparent scoring pass to Darren Sproles late in the first half, but it was nullified by a penalty.
‘‘I didn’t realize that until we walked off the field,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said. ‘‘That’s an unbelievable streak. Drew Brees is an outstanding quarterback. The way the defense played tonight speaks volumes. The guys had gone out there and thrown touchdown after touchdown game after game after game.’’
Michael Turner scored on Atlanta’s opening drive, Tony Gonzalez hauled in a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan, and Matt Bryant booted three field goals, including a 55-yarder.
The Falcons defense did the rest.
Thomas DeCoud, Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux also had interceptions for Atlanta, which will clinch the NFC South with a month to go in the regular season if Tampa Bay loses to Denver Sunday.
The defending NFC South champion Saints lost their second in a row and will likely have to win out to have even a faint hope of making the postseason during a tumultuous year that was marred by a bounty scandal and a season-long suspension for coach Sean Payton.
After winning so many close games, the Falcons started as if they were intent on a rout.
Ryan completed a pass on the first play, then turned it over to a running game that has struggled most of the season. Turner burst around right end for a 35-yard gain. Jacquizz Rodgers broke off two straight 14-yard gains. Finally, it was Turner going in standing from 3 yards, giving Atlanta a quick 7-0 lead.
It was Turner’s 58th touchdown in five seasons with the Falcons, breaking the team record he had shared with Terance Mathis.
Atlanta struck again in the opening minute of the second period. Julio Jones hauled in an 18-yard throw from Ryan, setting up a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez in the back of the end zone.
Brees’s second interception, this one thrown behind running Chris Ivory that deflected into the arms of Sean Weatherspoon, set up Bryant’s 45-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead.
For the rest of the second quarter and most of the third, the Saints dominated. Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run, capping an 11-play, 80-yard drive. New Orleans should have tacked on more points at the end of the half, but Brees made mistake with 12 seconds remaining, dumping a pass over the middle to Sproles with no timeouts. He was wrapped up at the Atlanta 3 and the clock ran out before the Saints could spike the ball.
The Falcons, meanwhile, couldn’t do anything offensively. They failed to pick up a first down on five straight possessions, a stretch in which the Saints had a 289-30 lead in total yards and a staggering 18 first downs.
Finally, it was the Atlanta defense that turned things around late in the third.