Hill, Lutz, defense lift Saints past Falcons to clinch third straight NFC South title

ATLANTA — The New Orleans Saints are going back to the playoffs.

They wrapped up their third consecutive NFC South championship by beating the Atlanta Falcons 26-18 on Thursday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Taysom Hill scored two touchdowns, Wil Lutz kicked four field goals and the Saints defense caused three turnovers and sacked Matt Ryan nine times as New Orleans improved to 9-3 by avenging a 26-9 loss to the Falcons (3-9) 18 days earlier.

The Saints next meet NFC-leading San Francisco (10-1) on Dec. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a game that will have a significant bearing on the conference playoff seedings. The 49ers visit AFC North-leading Baltimore on Sunday.

Hill, a backup quarterback who plays a variety of roles, deflected a punt to set up his touchdown reception from Drew Brees and replaced Brees on a third-down play that produced his rushing touchdown.

Brees had relatively modest statistics, completing 18 of 30 for 184 yards, but that was more than enough thanks to the Saints defense.

Ryan, playing without injured top receiver Julio Jones, completed 35 of 50 for 312 yards and two touchdowns and threw interceptions to Saints rookie defensive lineman Shy Tuttle and rookie defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

He also fumbled in the fourth quarter when hit by Marcus Davenport and Vonn Bell recovered for New Orleans.

The Saints led 17-9 at halftime and extended the lead on Lutz’s 47-yard field goal midway through the third quarter.

Lutz added a 42-yarder and a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter before Ryan threw a 13-yard touchdown to Russell Gage with 3:26 left.

The Falcons recovered an onside kick and Youngshoe Koo kicked a 43-yard field goal before they recovered another onside kick. They turned the ball over on downs at the Atlanta 48 when Cameron Jordan sacked Ryan for the fourth time.

The Saints got top cornerback Marshon Lattimore back after a two-game absence due to a hamstring injury. Julio Jones, the Falcons’ leading receiver, was inactive due to a shoulder injury.

The Saints didn’t reach the end zone in the first meeting, but they made sure there wouldn’t be a repeat of that in short order.

On the first possession of the game, the Falcons went three and out and Hill deflected the punt, giving New Orleans the ball at the Atlanta 30.

Four plays later Brees threw a shuttle pass to Hill coming in motion and Hill ran three yards for a touchdown, giving the Saints a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Falcons scored a touchdown on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Jaeden Graham early in the second quarter, but Koo missed the extra points.

It was reminiscent of the previous Sunday when Carolina’s Joey Slye missed two extra points and a 28-yard field goal and the Panthers failed on a 2-point conversion in the Saints 34-31 victory in the Superdome.

Lutz, whose 33-yard field goal as time expired provided the winning points against Carolina, kicked a 22-yard field goal and Hill ran 30 yards for touchdown to give New Orleans a 17-6 lead.

Atlanta converted a fourth down near midfield on its way to Koo’s 45-yard field goal with three seconds left in the second quarter, leaving the Saints with a 17-9 halftime lead.

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