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New Orleans 28, Atlanta 10

ATLANTA, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- New Orleans recorded nine sacks of Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler and rookie Deuce McAllister threw for one touchdown and ran for another Sunday to carry the Saints to a 28-10 victory over the Falcons and into the middle of the NFC playoff picture.

The Saints (7-5) hurdled Atlanta (6-6) in the standings and remained tied with Tampa Bay (7-5) for the final NFC wild card berth. The Saints, who are 10-3 on the road under second-year coach Jim Haslett, visit Tampa Bay in two weeks.

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"We're not gonna worry about the playoffs," Haslett said. "We're gonna worry about one game at a time."

"Certainly they have a chance to be one of those wild card teams," said Falcons coach Dan Reeves, whose team also is in the chase. "I think they have the best chance as far as the wild card is concerned."

Chandler came in nursing a severely sprained left ankle and likely left with a few more aches and pains. A relentless pass rush by the Saints often buried Chandler or forced him to rush his throws, neutralizing Atlanta's offense after its opening scoring drive.

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Jay Bellamy and William Whitehead had two sacks each and La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson were among those with one as the Saints harassed Chandler all day.

"It's always sweet to penetrate the backfield, make a solid hit like that," said Glover, who has seven sacks this year. "That's about as good as it gets. We came in with a chip on our shoulder today. We wanted to come out and make a statement. No team is going to out-physical this team."

"You guys see that our guys can rush the passer if we ever get ahead," Haslett said. "We had nine sacks. That's pretty good. I'll take that every week."

In their last four games against the Falcons, the Saints have 22 sacks.

"They were spectacular. They have good players," Chandler said. "The scheme Haslett has is exceptional. They have two really good tackles (Glover and Norman Hand) and Johnson at the end. Those three guys by themselves are good enough to put pressure on. Then you add what coach Haslett does and it gives them an advantage."

The Saints, meanwhile, had three touchdown drives of four plays or less. Their only extended drive came in immediate response to Atlanta's lone touchdown in the first quarter.

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McAllister, the 2001 first-round pick who has provided a change of pace to the bruising Ricky Williams, capped that 68-yard march in unconventional fashion. He took a pitchout left and pulled up before tossing a 12-yard scoring pass to an open Willie Jackson with 2:43 left in the opening period.

Williams scored less than a minute later to give New Orleans the lead for good. In the fourth quarter, the Saints scored just over four minutes apart as Joe Horn caught a 50-yard pass from Aaron Brooks and McAllister raced 54 yards to make it 28-10 with 8:16 to play.

Both Brooks and Horn had big days. Brooks completed 20 of 30 passes for 279 yards as he became the first Saint to throw for 3,000 yards in a season since Jim Everett in 1996. Horn caught seven passes for 138 yards as he joined Eric Martin (1988-89) as the only Saints wideouts with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

"I don't think I've been playing better than in the past," said Brooks, who has thrown 13 touchdowns against just four interceptions on the road. "I'm just eliminating one or two mistakes a game and that might be making me look a whole lot better."

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"No one in the league is playing better right now at quarterback," Horn said. "He's in a rhythm now. It's sad that it had to take that long, but the guy's playing ball right now. He's throwing the ball good."

Following the opening kickoff, Chandler led a 71-yard drive that resulted in Maurice Smith's one-yard scoring run. On defense, the Falcons filled the box and dared Brooks to pass -- which is just what he did, hitting Jackson with completions of 16 and 14 yards and Horn for 12 to the Atlanta 12.

"They were challenging us to throw the ball," he said. "They did that and they paid for it."

"We knew they were gonna come in here and try to take away our running game, so we came out passing," said Williams, who had 41 yards on 15 carries.

Even when the Saints looked as if they would run, they passed. McAllister's touchdown throw began as a pitch left, but he gave the Falcons a tip-off that they did not pick up on.

"That's the tough one, to go to my left," McAllister said. "I have to take my glove off so I can throw."

McAllister had thrown one other pass this year, an incompletion. However, he has some experience throwing the ball.

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"I threw one before in college. I've thrown two here," he said. "I played quarterback in high school."

Darrick Vaughn fumbled away the ensuing kickoff and two plays later, Williams banged in from the one for his sixth rushing touchdown, making it 14-7 with 1:45 left in the first quarter.

Vaughn atoned for his miscue by recovering Wane McGarity's fumbled punt at the Saints' 20, setting up Jay Feely's 22-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.

But that was it for the Falcons as Glover, Johnson and company shut down the run and targeted Chandler.

"We wanted to come out today and prove a point that we were the most physical team," said linebacker Charlie Clemons, who was shut out but leads the Saints with 11 sacks. "This is playoff time."

"You can't win with nine sacks," Reeves said. "A lot of those were in long-yardage situations. We were ineffective on first down. Then you end up with third down and penalties. The inability to protect the quarterback is big."

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