ATLANTA (AP) – The New Orleans Saints managed to catch two long touchdown passes, even though their best receiver wasn’t on the field.

The Atlanta Falcons couldn’t catch anything.

Drew Brees threw a 76-yard touchdown to Devery Henderson on the third play of the game, then lofted a 48-yarder to Terrance Copper on the final play of the first half, leading the Saints past the bumbling Falcons 31-13 on Sunday.

New Orleans bounced back from losing three of four, boosted its playoff hopes and delivered a crushing blow to an NFC West rival. The Saints (7-4) won without rookie star Marques Colston, who didn’t dress because of a sprained ankle.

It helped to be playing the Falcons (5-6), who really had no one but themselves to blame for their fourth straight loss. Even though Michael Vick ran for 166 yards, Atlanta couldn’t overcome five dropped passes and a shocking defensive breakdown just before halftime.

Leading 14-6, New Orleans had the ball at the Atlanta 48 with 7 seconds remaining. Brees dropped back and let go a towering pass toward the end zone, the sort of desperation throw that is usually knocked down without any damage.

Copper slipped between Derrick Johnson and Lawyer Milloy, pulling down the ball as he fell into the end zone. DeAngelo Hall also leaped at the ball, but got there too late to prevent Copper from making the catch.

John Carney punched through the extra point for a 21-6 lead, and the Falcons trotted off the field to a round of boos.

It only got worse in the second half, with Falcons receivers playing like they rubbed down their hands with Vaseline.

The crushing blow came early in the fourth quarter when Roddy White let the ball slip from his hands at the New Orleans 10 with no one around him after the Falcons had closed to 21-13. Coach Jim Mora fell to his knees in disbelief. Tight end Alge Crumpler held up his arms and looked toward the roof of the Georgia Dome, as if trying to summon some sort of divine intervention.

Brees had no such problems with his receivers, completing 21-of-30 for 349 yards – the fifth straight 300-yard game for the Saints’ first-year quarterback. He burned the Falcons right away, going deep to Colston’s replacement on third-and-7 from the New Orleans 24.

Henderson broke free down the middle, hauling in the pass without breaking stride. Hall, who was beaten on the play, dragged down the receiver after he was in the end zone, drawing a personal foul. He should have directed his frustration at the safeties, who didn’t provide any held on the deep throw – a familiar problem for the Falcons.

After White’s drop, the Saints finished it with Carney’s 25-yard field goal and Deuce McAllister’s second touchdown run, a 9-yarder with 2:23 remaining.

Vick challenged his NFL record for yards rushing by a quarterback, coming up 7 short of his 173-yard performance in an overtime victory at Minnesota in 2002. But the Falcons’ passing game is a mess, with Vick finishing 9-of-24 for 84 yards.

The Saints swept the season series by a combined score of 54-16, having also won easily in Week 3 – their first game back in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina.

AP-ES-11-26-06 1630EST

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