By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints no longer sound like a team in denial when they discuss their refusal to give up on this most unusual of seasons.
Perhaps all was not lost when they followed up a scandal-plagued offseason with an 0-4 start.
Certainly, the Superdome was packed with reveling believers after tight end Jimmy Graham turned in a career performance and his teammates made a slew of clutch plays to hand the rival Atlanta Falcons their first loss of the season, 31-27 on Sunday.
“This win today is a culmination of these guys sticking together from Day 1,” said assistant head coach Joe Vitt, now leading the coaching staff while Sean Payton serves a season-long suspension in connection with the NFL’s bounty probe of the Saints. “They come to work with sense of purpose every day. They don’t point fingers and they work hard to get better every day and that’s what they’ve done.”
Graham caught seven passes for a career-best 146 yards and two touchdowns, and Jabari Greer made a diving, touchdown-saving pass breakup on a late fourth-down pass intended for Roddy White to help New Orleans hold on.
Brees threw for 298 yards and three TDs as the Saints (4-5) won for the fourth time in five games, keeping alive hope of getting back into the wild-card race. It was also New Orleans’ 11th win in 13 games against Atlanta since Brees joined the Saints in 2006.
The Saints can even their record with a win at Oakland next weekend.
“That’s something we feel like we’re capable of and we envisioned being able to do that, because we know the type of team we have,” Brees said. “We knew we dug selves a hole. We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. …Good things are starting to happen.”
Greer’s play represented a measure of redemption for the veteran cornerback, who’d given up two long passes earlier in the game that led to Atlanta scores.
“I was kind of depressed before that play,” Greer said. “I saw my name on the waiver wire. … Being able to go out there and make a play for our team and to be able to celebrate after everything that happened and just to win that way, it’s a gift.”
Matt Ryan was 34 of 52 for a career-best 411 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and the game was there for him to win when his 9-yard pass to Harry Douglas gave Atlanta a second-and-goal at the 1. But Ryan could not connect on a second-down pass for Tony Gonzalez, the Saints stuffed Michael Turner for a 1-yard loss on third down, and then came Greer’s play on Ryan’s pass over the middle for White.
“It’s not like they came out here and won a game today,” White said of the Saints. “I think we kind of gave it to them. … We play them in three weeks (Nov. 29) and we’ll be ready.”
The Saints punted the ball back to Atlanta one last time with about 40 seconds left, but the Falcons’ last hope fizzled when Gonzalez could not haul in Ryan’s fourth down pass.
Both Graham and Gonzalez were superb in a game that showcased the intensity and momentum changes one would expect from one of the NFL’s most passionate and longstanding rivalries.
Gonzalez finished with 11 catches for 122 yards and two scores for Atlanta (8-1), and in the process became the first tight end to catch 100 touchdown passes.
“Tony, he kind of paved the way for me,” said Graham, who like Gonzalez had a college basketball background before making the transition to NFL tight end. “It seemed like every drive I’m kind of going up against the things that he did the last drive.”
Although the Saints’ defense came in allowing a league-worst 176.5 yards rushing per game, it held Atlanta to 46 yards on the ground.
New Orleans rushed for 148 yards, highlighted by Chris Ivory’s career-long 56-yard scoring run that gave the Saints a spark after Atlanta had raced to a 10-0 lead.
Ivory used a hesitation move to get to the corner past Asante Samuel, broke a tackle by Thomas DeCoud, kept his balance, cut back and then stiff-armed Dunta Robinson before trotting into the end zone.
The Saints led 28-17 on Brees’ scoring strike to Marques Colston.
It was Colston’s 55th career TD, tying Deuce McAllister for first in Saints history. The score capped an 81-yard drive which began with rookie Corey White’s interception and was highlighted by Lance Moore’s diving one-handed catch for a 29-yard gain to the Atlanta 32.
The Falcons pulled to 28-27 on Gonzalez’s second TD and Matt Bryant’s field goal after New Orleans’ second red zone stand of the game.
New Orleans briefly interrupted Atlanta’s momentum when Graham’s 46-yard catch set up Garrett Hartley’s 31-yard field goal, setting up a thrilling finish.
SEAHAWKS 28, JETS 7
SEATTLE — Russell Wilson threw touchdowns of 38 yards to Golden Tate and 31 yards to Sidney Rice, and Seattle sent the Jets to their worst start since 2007.
Wilson was harried for much of the day by the multiple looks from the Jets’ defense. But the Seattle rookie responded with key throws, hitting Tate on the opening drive, then connecting with Rice early in the fourth quarter to give Seattle (6-4) a two-score advantage. Tate added a TD pass on a reverse to Rice later in the fourth quarter.
Mark Sanchez struggled in his reunion with Seattle coach Pete Carroll, his former coach at USC. Sanchez threw a costly interception at the goal line in the first half, then fumbled at the Seattle 32.
Muhammad Wilkerson’s fumble return for a TD was the only score for New York (3-6).
COWBOYS 38, EAGLES 23
PHILADELPHIA — Tony Romo threw a pair of touchdowns, Dwayne Harris had a 78-yard punt return for a score and Brandon Carr returned an interception 47 yards for a TD.
The Cowboys improved to 4-5, and are second in the NFC East, 1½ games behind the New York Giants.
The Eagles (3-6) lost Michael Vick to a concussion after consecutive bruising hits in the second quarter and have lost five straight games under coach Andy Reid for the first time in his 14 seasons.
Nick Foles filled in for Vick and briefly rallied the Eagles until the Cowboys started showing some touchdown versatility. Romo hit Dez Bryant on a 30-yard pass on the final play of the third quarter, and Harris and Carr scored their TDs in the fourth quarter.
RAMS 24, 49ERS 24
SAN FRANCISCO — Two typically reliable kickers missed. Penalties doomed both sides. And a furious, thrilling finish to regulation ended with a dramatic dud in overtime: a tie.
And nobody particularly likes a tie. Especially not the NFC West-leading 49ers, with a chance to separate themselves against a division rival. Or the Rams, eager to snap a three-game losing streak.
San Francisco and St. Louis played the NFL’s first tie game in four years as both teams missed overtime field goals in Sunday’s 24-24 outcome.
“I have to say, I’ve been doing this a while. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game like this,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “As I told our guys, we had a number of chances to put the game away. And, unfortunately, we didn’t.”
Greg Zuerlein kicked a 53-yarder, but the Rams were penalized 5 yards for delay of game — which holder Johnny Hekker said was his fault. Zuerlein tried again from 58 as Fisher played for the win, and missed wide right with 2:42 left in OT.
San Francisco’s David Akers missed wide left on a 41-yard attempt that could have sealed it for the 49ers (6-2-1), who lost quarterback Alex Smith to a first-half concussion.
And just when it seemed the 49ers — and Akers’ typically reliable left leg — would have one more chance to win it, San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis was flagged for holding Lance Kendricks on third down. That extended St. Louis’ last drive, a costly mistake in a long list of them on an uncharacteristically sloppy day by coach Jim Harbaugh’s team.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” Willis said. “We have one of the best kickers in the game, and it came down to him at the end and he misses it. That tells you right there something wasn’t right.”
Akers booted a tying 33-yarder with 3 seconds left in regulation after Sam Bradford threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Austin Pettis with 1:09 remaining.
On the first play of OT, Bradford completed an 80-yard pass to Danny Amendola that took St. Louis (3-5-1) to the 2, but the play was called back for an illegal formation. Some 49ers fans got up to leave, then returned to their seats.
The last tie was between Philadelphia and Cincinnati, 13-13 in 2008. San Francisco played its first tie since 1986.
BRONCOS 36, PANTHERS 14
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Peyton Manning made sure John Fox’s return to Carolina was a successful one, throwing for 301 yards and a touchdown.
Manning threw his 420th touchdown pass to move into a tie for second place on the NFL’s all-time list with Dan Marino. He trails only Brett Favre (508).
Manning had plenty of help from his teammates.
Von Miller harassed Cam Newton all day and Trindon Holliday returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown as the Broncos (6-3) won for the fifth time in six weeks. The Broncos sacked Newton seven times, including once for a safety, and Miller pressured him into an interception Tony Carter returned 40 yards for a score.
Fox, who coached the Panthers for nine seasons, downplayed his return all week, but celebrated with a few fist pumps Sunday.
PATRIOTS 37, BILLS 31
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns, Devin McCourty ended Buffalo’s hopes with an interception in the end zone and New England kept Buffalo winless at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots (6-3) let a 17-3 lead slip to 34-31 with 7:47 left on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Donald Jones. Then the Bills (3-6) held the Patriots to a 27-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 2:06 remaining.
Buffalo then moved to a second-and-10 at the New England 15 before Fitzpatrick threw the ball right into the hands of McCourty while trying to hit T.J. Graham.
New England is 11-0 against the Bills at Gillette since it opened in 2002 and 20-2 overall in its last 22 games against Buffalo.
VIKINGS 34, LIONS 24
MINNEAPOLIS — Adrian Peterson raced 61 yards for the game-sealing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, padding his NFL rushing lead with 171 yards on 27 carries for Minnesota.
Peterson had 120 yards in the final 15 minutes, 10½ months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Ponder bounced back from a rough game with 221 yards and two touchdowns on 24-for-32 passing for the Vikings (6-4).
Calvin Johnson had 207 yards on 12 catches, including a touchdown that brought the Lions (4-5) a little closer with 1:53 left. But Johnson’s lost fumble near midfield on the previous possession put Vikings rookie Blair Walsh in position for his fourth field goal.
BUCCANEERS 34, CHARGERS 24
TAMPA, Fla. — Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes and the surging Buccaneers scored on a blocked punt and Leonard Johnson’s 83-yard interception.
Freeman has thrown for 13 TDs with one interception in his past five games, helping the Bucs (5-4) win four times to climb back over .500 following a 1-3 start.
Rivers threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns for San Diego. He was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter to ruin any chance of the Chargers (4-5) coming from behind.
BENGALS 31, GIANTS 13
CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton threw a career-high four touchdown passes — each to a different receiver — and the Cincinnati Bengals ended their four-game losing streak by beating the New York Giants 31-13 on Sunday.
The Bengals (4-5) took advantage of a fumble and Eli Manning’s two interceptions, which set up third-quarter touchdowns. That helped A.J. Green back up his observation there are holes in New York’s defense.
The defending Super Bowl champions have a lot of holes everywhere.
The Giants (6-4) head into their bye with back-to-back losses and a lot of issues, especially on offense. Manning had another subpar game, failing to live up his family legacy of beating the Bengals. Older brother Peyton improved to 8-0 against Cincinnati on the same field a week earlier, leading Denver to a 31-23 win.
The Giants turned it over four times in the second half.
RAVENS 55, RAIDERS 20
BALTIMORE — Joe Flacco threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, and Baltimore set a club record for points.
The Ravens (7-2) scored on six of their first seven possessions against the struggling Raiders (3-6), who have yielded at least 40 points in two straight games for the first time since 1962. The 55 points tied an Oakland record for points allowed, a mark set in 1961 and matched in 1981.
Baltimore led 27-10 at halftime. In the third quarter, Flacco threw touchdown passes of 47 and 20 yards to Torrey Smith, and holder Sam Koch scored on a fake field goal in the third quarter to make it 48-17.
In the fourth quarter, Jacoby Jones took a kickoff 105 yards for 55-20 lead. Baltimore’s previous record for points in a game was 48, against Detroit in December 2009.
TITANS 37, DOLPHINS 3
MIAMI — Colin McCarthy returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown, and four takeaways helped Tennessee rout Miami.
The Titans came into the game on pace to set an NFL record for points allowed in a season, but they stymied Miami by intercepting Ryan Tannehill three times and recovering a Reggie Bush fumble to set up a touchdown.
Tennessee (4-6) rebounded from a 51-20 loss a week ago against the Bears that prompted owner Bud Adams to put the organization on notice. Last week the Titans trailed 28-2 after one quarter; this week they led 21-0 after 16 minutes.
For Miami (4-5), the home loss was the most lopsided since 1968.