ATLANTA -- Both teams had 11 players on the field for the Monday night game here, but the performance of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wide receivers against the Atlanta Falcons' secondary made the prime-time matchup resemble a summertime training camp exercise.
More specifically, a seven-on-seven passing drill, a routine during which, in theory at least, the ball rarely hits the ground.
There are few elements in football prettier to watch than a rhythmic passing game and, in a 34-14 victory that kept New Orleans (6-7) at least on the fringes of the NFC wild-card derby, Brees orchestrated a masterpiece of synchronicity. The
seven-year veteran completed 28 of 41 passes for 328 yards, with three touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.7.
And he did it all with the kind of exquisite, surgical touch and delicate precision typically associated with an expensive Swiss watch.
"We got it going early, got into a groove with the passing game, and just really started feeling like there were plays out there to be made," said Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, who had nine catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. "And when Drew gets going like that, where he's just into the flow and hitting everything he throws, there aren't many defenses that can keep up. He's like a conductor out there."
Make no mistake, Brees was clearly in harmony with his receivers, functioning like a human metronome. The recurrent pattern: Retreat, plant, throw, usually off three- or five-step drops, and with an accuracy that left the Atlanta secondary sorely overmatched. The New Orleans offense demonstrated great balance -- No. 3 tailback Aaron Stecker, the starter because of season-ending knee injuries to Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, rushed for 100 yards on 20 carries -- but the passing game clearly was superior. It set up the run and certainly set the tone for the evening.
By halftime, Brees had thrown for 250 yards, and staked his team to a 17-7 advantage, engineering drives of 99 and 94 yards for touchdowns and 75 yards for a field goal. On the 99-yard drive, he completed five of six passes for all 99 yards, finishing the rapid-fire sequence with a perfectly-lofted fade pattern to wide receiver David Patten, who beat rookie cornerback Chris Houston in the left front edge of the end zone. Brees then hit all nine of his passes on the 94-yard drive near the end of the half, culminating the series when he found Colston mismatched against middle linebacker Keith Brooking for a 15-yard score.
Said Patten, who finished with nine receptions for 122 yards: "The thing about Drew is, he is just such a perfectionist, you know? And when he's into a rhythm like he was tonight -- I mean, bam, the ball was coming out of his hand before we made our cuts, really -- it's something special. He was the man in the spotlight tonight, and he made it easy for us."
Actually the quarterback truly in the spotlight was the man in absentia, banished Falcons star Michael Vick, who earlier in the day was sentenced to 23 months of prison time for his role in an illegal dogfighting ring.
Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall brandished a poster of Vick during the pregame introductions, and played the game with the message "MV-7" stenciled onto his eye-black patches. Wide receiver Roddy White, one of the few bright spots in Atlanta's mostly dismal season, lifted his game jersey to reveal a T-shirt with the message "Free Michael Vick" when he scored on a 33-yard pass from Chris Redman in the first quarter. White will likely draw a fine from commissioner Roger Goodell.
"You just don't want people to forget about Mike, that's all, to keep him in their thoughts," said Hall, who hung the Vick poster on the back of a Falcons bench. "We still care about him as a human being."
But even if he were on hand, Vick, whose absence has forced first-year coach Bobby Petrino to employ three different starting quarterbacks, couldn't play defense. And neither could most of the guys assigned to do so in the Atlanta secondary. Brees finished with six completions for 20 yar
ds or more and two hookups for 30-plus yards.
Colston, who has 53 receptions for 715 yards and six touchdowns in his last seven games and who has been deployed more from the slot in that stretch, typically worked the middle of the field. When he was on the outside, he used his superior size to go up over the Falcons' cornerbacks. And Patten, a clever, 11-year pro who still possesses some explosiveness at age 33, was much quicker than anyone trying to contain him. The two wideouts combined for eight receptions on third down as the Saints converted 10 of 17 third-down situations against an Atlanta defense that led the NFL in lowest third-down conversion rate.
"I thought," Brees said, "that we were just really efficient."
And, as has been the case for much of the season but especially over the past month, the Falcons, playing with little passion and in front of a small crowd, were deficient in most areas.
"We've pretty much been to the bottom," Hall said.
Indeed, after a modest, two-game winning streak, Atlanta has lost its last four games, all by 12 points or more and by an average of 18.5 points. It is a team overmatched in terms of personnel and coaching right now, an outfit marked by a seemingly dispassionate approach, a franchise in crisis. And on Monday night, it was a team that had no chance against a New Orleans passing game that made things looks easy.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.