Saints become 1st team to clinch playoff spot

The New Orleans Saints had to hang on throughout a fourth quarter that got way too close for comfort on Sunday.

But in the end, they became the first NFL team to clinch a playoff spot.

The Saints (10-2) held on for a 21-16 victory at Atlanta — their ninth consecutive win. And they officially earned their way into the postseason because of the Chicago Bears‘ late collapse against the Detroit Lions.

The Saints need one more win or one more loss by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) to clinch the NFC South title for the fourth consecutive year.

“It’s definitely a blessing to be in this situation,” receiver Michael Thomas said of the Saints maintaining their winning streak despite injuries to standout players such as quarterback Drew Brees, himself and others.

“I feel like it’s the culture that we’ve built since I’ve gotten here. We slowly built it — and we demand it now. We demand success, we demand excellence. Home or away … we’re coming to win games.

“As long as we keep that mindset, with the coaches that we have and the skill set we have on offense, defense and special teams, we’re a very dominant team. And everyone knows that.”

Sunday also marked the third straight win for quarterback Taysom Hill as Brees’ injury replacement. And for a while, it was looking like his best performance yet until he lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter while trying to avoid a sack at the Falcons’ 14-yard line with New Orleans leading 21-9.

Hill finished 27 of 37 passing for 232 yards, including the first two touchdown passes of his career, to receiver Tre’Quan Smith and tight end Jared Cook. He also ran the ball 14 times for 83 yards — including a 43-yard scramble in the first half. At one point, he completed 10 straight third-down pass attempts, including his TD to Cook.

“I think his third downs all game were strong. I thought his performance was strong,” said Saints coach Sean Payton — who blamed himself for putting Hill in a bad position with his play call on the fumble, while still stressing that Hill needs to improve his ball security as a runner.

“[Quarterback] is the position everyone focuses on. But man, our team’s playing well,” Payton said. “We’re fortunate to have depth at a number of positions, and that’s including quarterback. So I’m proud of how we played.”

Hill’s audition to become Brees’ long-term future successor might not last that much longer, since Brees is eligible to return from injured reserve as early as this week. However, no timetable has been declared yet for Brees’ return from a total of 11 broken ribs on both sides of his body and a punctured lung.

“I don’t care as much as people might think about statistics and all that stuff. At the end of the day, I’m happy we’ve gotten three wins. So that is the statistic I care most about,” said Hill, who acknowledged that he was disappointed about the lost fumble — especially since the Saints were already in field goal territory.

“As far as my overall development, I feel like I’m becoming more and more comfortable operating the offense, and I feel like there are so many ways that I can continue get better,” Hill said. “That’s encouraging that we’re moving the ball and we’re winning football games, while there’s still places for us to get better.”

In the end, Sunday, the Saints needed their defense to end Atlanta’s rally with a red zone stand late in the fourth quarter and a batted-down Hail Mary attempt as time expired. The key play came when Saints linebacker Demario Davis stuffed running back Todd Gurley for a 7-yard loss on third-and-2 from New Orleans’ 13-yard line with 1:42 remaining.

“That was a significant play,” said Payton, who added that the key to the game was the Saints forcing Atlanta to settle for field goals throughout the first half.

Before they allowed Atlanta to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday, the Saints had gone 14 consecutive quarters without allowing a TD. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that was the longest streak in the NFL since the 2018-19 New England Patriots.

“We always say, ‘Put it on our defense, put it on us.’ And we have that mentality,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We like us. Especially if we’re defending a touchdown — we love us.”

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