By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Sean Payton enjoyed a triumphant return from his bounty ban, with help from Drew Brees and a defense overhauled by the coordinator he hired shortly after his reinstatement.
Brees passed for 357 yards and two scores and the New Orleans Saints held on for a 23-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Roman Harper intercepted a tipped fourth down pass in the end zone with under a minute left, allowing the Saints to run out the clock.
Brees connected with Marques Colston for a 25-yard touchdown pass during which the receiver also set a franchise mark for catches with 533. Brees also hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 7-yard score in the third quarter.
Matt Ryan passed for 304 yards and touchdown passes to Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones. In the final three minutes, Ryan quickly drove Atlanta to the Saints 3 before the Saints defense stiffened.
Steven Jackson rushed 11 times for 77 yards in his Atlanta debut, including a 50-yard run.
New Orleans’ defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan gave up a pair of 50-yard plays, the other on a pass to Harry Douglas, but also put a lot of pressure on Ryan.
Ryan was sacked three times and threw balls away on several other occasions, including an early third down play deep in Saints territory, forcing Atlanta to settle for a field goal.
The group also produced a momentum-changing turnover when Malcolm Jenkins stripped Jones and Harper recovered to start the drive that ended with Colston’s TD, which tied the game at 10 in the second quarter.
Colston finished with five catches for 68 yards. Darren Sproles caught six passes for 88 yards.
Douglas caught four passes for 93 yards, including a 20-yarder to the New Orleans 7 on Atlanta’s final drive.
But that turned out to be Ryan’s last significant completion on a drive which started with completions of 17, 16, 7 and 13 yards as the Falcons appeared to be driving for a potential winning score.
But on third-and-goal, Ramon Humber broke up a pass for Jackson at the goal line, then rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped Ryan’s fourth down pass for Gonzalez in the end zone.
Payton, who has had a low-key approach to his return from his suspension, finally put himself in the spotlight when he agreed to help former special teams standout Steve Gleason who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, initiate the Superdome crowd’s tradition pregame “Who dat!” chant after the coin toss.
Fans stood and cheered passionately as Payton held up Gleason’s arm with his left hand and held up his own right arm, then lowered both to initiate the chant by the crowd packing the Superdome for an eagerly awaited matchup between regional rivals and the past two teams to win NFC South.
It didn’t translate to a good start for the home club, though.
The Falcons struck for the first big play of the game on Douglas’ 50-yard catch and run to the New Orleans 10, setting up Ryan’s 7-yard TD pass to Gonzalez.
Atlanta later stuffed Saints running back Mark Ingram on fourth-and-short near midfield, and quickly drove for a short field goal and a 10-0 lead. Garret Hartley’s 48-yard field goal in the second quarter made it 10-3.
New Orleans then went up 13-10 on a short field goal set up by rookie Kenny Stills’ 67-yard catch, and that score stood until halftime.