SAN ANTONIO – The New Orleans Saints played their best football of the season Sunday, and they still couldn’t catch a break.

As Atlanta kicker Todd Peterson’s kick sailed through the uprights for a 34-31 Falcons win, Saints players started ripping their helmets off in anger and fans at the Alamodome threw paper out of the upper decks in disgust.

They had their reasons: Peterson had missed his first try in the final seconds and the game appeared headed for overtime. But a defensive holding penalty was called on New Orleans defensive end Tony Bryant. The infraction had nothing to do with Peterson’s missing the 41-yarder, but the Falcons were allowed to line up for another try nonetheless.

New Orleans (2-4), embarrassed at Green Bay 52-3 a week earlier, had tied it at 31-31 when Aaron Brooks hit Devery Henderson in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard TD with under a minute left.

Then the Falcon’s Michael Vick, bottled up most of the afternoon in his first game back from a sprained knee, completed four passes and ran for a first down that quickly moved the ball down the field.

Then the Saints – and the officials – practically handed it to Peterson to win. Not once, but twice.

First, the Saints were flagged for having too many players on the field. The extra five yards inched Peterson up from what would have been a 46-yard attempt.

Then, as his kick with six seconds left sailed wide left, another flag dropped, this time calling Bryant for the hold. So Peterson stepped up again and drilled his second chance as time expired.

Enduring a season on the road after being forced out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints – who complained loudly after being made to play their first “home” game at New York against the Giants – had found a way to drop another one.

On Sunday, the Saints controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game and held the dynamic Vick in check.

The Falcons (4-2) scored two long defensive touchdowns and a fourth-quarter interception set up Warrick Dunn’s 21-yard touchdown that made it 31-24 with less than five minutes to play.

The Saints’ mistakes started in the first half.

Leading 10-3 after a Vick interception led to a Saints field goal, New Orleans was driving again when Antowain Smith coughed up a fumble that Atlanta’s DeAngelo Hall scooped up and raced 66 yards for a touchdown.

The Saints held the ball for 13 minutes of the second quarter and were driving for another score when Hall drew an offensive pass interference penalty on Az-Zahir Hakim that waived off a touchdown.

With four seconds left in the half, the Saints lined up for a 47-yard field goal that was blocked by Michael Boley. The ball bounced straight to Demorrio Williams, who returned it 59 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 Atlanta lead.

Brooks finished with 259 yards passing and two touchdowns and Antowain Smith, starting in place of the injured Deuce McAllister, rushed for 88 yards and two TDs.

Dunn led Atlanta with 100 yards on 22 carries.

AP-ES-10-16-05 1709EDT


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