NEW ORLEANS — Matt Ryan hit nine of his first 12 passes for 120 yards, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Julio Jones that gave the Atlanta Falcons a 10-7 lead over the New Orleans Saints after one quarter on Monday night.
Both teams scored on all of their possessions in the opening quarter, with the Saints briefly pulling in front 7-3 on Pierre Thomas' 4-yard touchdown run, after which he pulled a bow from his uniform pants, put it on the football and offered it as a gift to a woman with a parasol in the front row behind the end zone.
The referees weren't cutting Thomas any slack on his Christmas-themed celebration, flagging him for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The score capped an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive on which Drew Brees completed two passes for 49 yards as he closed in on Dan Marino's 1984 single-season yards passing record of 5,084. Brees entered the game needing 305 yards to pass Marino's mark.
The Saints entered the game needing only one victory to clinch the NFC South title, while Atlanta could remain in the hunt to defend its 2010 division crown with a win.
After Atlanta received the opening kickoff, Ryan completed five of his first six throws for 52 yards, including a 20-yard completion to Roddy White at the New Orleans 23. The Saints' defense stiffened there, however, forcing Atlanta to settle for Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
The Saints responded immediately, with Brees hitting Lance Moore for a 38-yard gain on New Orleans' first play from scrimmage. The Saints then went to the running game, with Chris Ivory rushing one time for 11 yards and Thomas three times for 24 yards, including his short TD run.
Thomas' unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, enforced on the ensuing kickoff, was not terribly costly, as Eric Weems returned it to the Atlanta 28. More costly was the Saints inability to slow down Ryan, who quickly found Jones for a 25-yard gain and White for 16 yards to set up the scoring pass to Jones.