Saints All But Playoff Bound

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The New Orleans Saints are on the verge of making the NFL playoffs, and a 24-year-old quarterback whose last postseason experience was in the Peach Bowl is getting them there. Aaron Brooks, making just his fourth NFL start, completed 24 of 35 passes for 285 yards on Sunday, leading the Saints to a 23-7 victory over Atlanta and a step closer to the fifth playoff berth in their 34-year history. ``The main thing going through my mind was to stay focused, be consistent in what we are doing, run the offense and keep the team out of bad plays,'' Brooks said. ``If we do those things, we pretty much ensure a victory, and we did a lot of those things.'' The Saints (10-5), who last had a winning season in 1992, all but locked up the playoff spot. Only a tie by St. Louis and Tampa Bay on Monday night could prevent them from clinching. ``I don't know of too many teams that go 3-13, then have won 10 games to this point this season,'' Saints coach Jim Haslett said. ``The way these guys have stuck together and really become a family. the way they feed off one another, that's the biggest thing I'm proud of.'' The Saints are 7-0 against NFC West foes _ sweeping the Panthers, 49ers and Falcons _ with just the Rams standing in the way of a sweep of the division. New Orleans and St. Louis close out the season next week in what could be a showdown for first place. The Falcons (3-12), had not lost to the Saints in the Superdome in five years, and had lost by 10 or more points there only four other times since the Dome was built 25 years ago. Brooks, alternately looking like a green rookie and a seasoned pro, escaped pressure time after time and kept drives going with long completions. He was sacked only once. ``It means a lot to me because it's a personal goal I set for myself,'' Brooks said. ``I always felt that if I was put in this position I wanted to prove myself to my teammates and coaches.'' New Orleans missed two scoring opportunities when Brooks fumbled a handoff to Terry Allen on the 1, and when Daryl Terrell, on a tackle-eligible play, bobbled a catch in the end zone. ``People don't give us any respect,'' said Saints receiver Joe Horn, who had seven catches for 116 yards. ``But we're not the New Orleans Saints anymore. We're the new New Orleans Saints and people can't just roll in here and roll out with a win.'' The Saints held the Falcons to 64 yards rushing and 163 yards in total offense, and the defense scored New Orleans' first touchdown in the second quarter when safety Sammy Knight intercepted Doug Johnson's pass and returned it 31 yards. The Saints got inside the Atlanta 5 twice in the first quarter, when they outgained Atlanta 124-0, but were unable to get into the end zone. But Knight's interception and field goals of 20 and 46 yards by Doug Brien in the second period made it 13-0 at halftime. Brien also kicked a 47-yarder in the fourth quarter. Atlanta opened the second half with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Darrick Vaughn, but Brooks immediately drove the Saints 75 yards in nine plays, and Allen rushed the final 2 yards for a touchdown to make it 20-7. Chris Chandler, benched after a loss to Oakland on Dec. 3, took over in the second half. By that time, Johnson had completed only five of 10 passes for 45 yards and was sacked four times. Chandler proved to be no more effective. He was 4-of-10 for 81 yards and was sacked once. ``Coming into New Orleans with the defense they have makes it tough,'' Chandler said. ``You don't get too many situations much tougher than this one.'' On his first series, Chandler was intercepted by Alex Molden in the end zone. On his second, Jamal Anderson fumbled the ball away. Notes:@ Saints defensive end Joe Johnson, who made his second Pro Bowl this week, was fined and forced to sit out the first quarter for missing a team meeting. He made two sacks after checking into the game. ... Saints defensive end Darren Howard, credited with half a sack Sunday, leads all rookies with 10.5 sacks. ... The Saints had five sacks against the Falcons and 63 this year. Their previous record was 59. ... The Falcons have been held to less than 100 yards rushing in 13 of 15 games. ... Atlanta has scored 14 or fewer points in seven straight games. ... Injuries: Saints _ S Steve Gleason, left knee sprain. Falcons _ center Todd McClure, strained right calf.