NEW ORLEANS -- Exiled from the NFL sidelines for 20 months for his part in the Bountygate scandal, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton found sweet solace Sunday by making a triumphant return and continuing his mastery over the Atlanta Falcons with a 23-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
As seven of the previous 10 meetings have come down to the last possession, this one was no different. Safety Roman Harper sealed the victory for the much-maligned Saints' defense by intercepting a deflected Matt Ryan pass in the end zone with 43 seconds left, blunting what looked like a miracle Atlanta rally.
Playing a fourth-and-goal from the Saints' 3, Ryan retreated in the pocket due to heavy pressure by linebacker Curtis Lofton, an ex-Falcon. He lofted a pass over the middle toward tight end Tony Gonzalez, but rookie safety Kenny Vacarro got a finger on the ball, and the pass deflected through Gonzalez's waiting hands.
From there, the ball shot skyward, and Harper hauled in the interception 1 yard deep in the end zone.
The play snuffed out a furious Atlanta rally that started at the Falcons 20 with 3:12 left. Ryan threw five consecutive completions to move the ball to the Saints' 7, but the Falcons could not get the touchdown they needed. Running back Steven Jackson dropped a potential TD pass at the goal-line on third down, setting up the final play.
The victory gave Payton an 11-2 record over the Falcons since he took over the Saints in 2006.
Trailing 10-0 after Matt Ryan's 7-yard scoring pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and a 23-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, the Saints regained the lead with 13 unanswered points in the second quarter.
Garrett Hartley kicked a 48-yard field goal to cap a 12-play, 50-yard drive. Then on Atlanta's next play from scrimmage, Julio Jones caught a Ryan pass for a 22-yard gain, but he was stripped of the ball by Jabari Greer and safety Roman Harper recovered and returned it to the Falcons' 31.
Brees made it 10-10 with a 25-yard strike down the right seam to wide receiver Marques Colston, who dove between linebacker Akeem Dent and cornerback Robert Alford. The catch gave the eight-year pro the Saints' all-time career reception record with 533, surpassing Eric Martin.
After forcing an Atlanta punt, Brees connected with rookie wide receiver Kenny Still for 67 yards to the Falcons' 9-yard line, but two holding calls on right guard Jahri Evans forced the Saints to settle for a 31-yard Hartley field goal, putting the Saints up 13-10.
The Falcons regained the lead on their first possession of the second half, getting a short field at the Atlanta 41 after a short New Orleans punt. Jackson found a gaping hole in the Saints' defense with a cutback to the right and motored 50 yards to the New Orleans 5. Ryan put Atlanta up 17-13 with a 4-yard third-down pass on a square in by Julio Jones, who easily beat Corey White.
But Brees then led the Saints' most impressive drive of the game, a 10-play, 80-yard march in which he overcame an offensive holding call on left tackle Charles Brown. Brees found Sproles for a 22-yard completion on a circle route on third-and-6, and he hit Stills for 19 yards. The payoff was a 7-yard toss to tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught the ball in the right flat and then stretched the ball over the goal-line despite a tackle attempt by safety Thomas DeCoud.
Hartley's 22-yard field goal with 3:12 left gave the Saints a 23-17 lead, but that was plenty of time for Ryan and the Falcons to make it interesting.
NOTES: Already depleted on defense, the Saints lost two interior defensive linemen -- Brodrick Binkley and Tyrunn Walker -- to unspecified leg injuries in the first half. ... Sean Payton and former Saints special teamer Steve Gleason, who is battling Lou Gehrig's Disease, went to midfield before the game to lead the sellout crowd in a "Who Dat!" cheer.