NEW ORLEANS -- When the New Orleans Saints traded All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle in the offseason, no one really knew who might emerge as quarterback Drew Brees' go-to target, especially in the red zone.
Watson caught 10 passes for a career-high 127 yards, including a two-yard touchdown on a fourth-down gamble late in the third quarter, and the Saints (2-4) shut down the high-octane Atlanta Falcons offense for a 31-21 victory.
The Falcons were previously undefeated in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"He's my guy," Brees said of Watson. "He's probably one of the greatest teammates you could ever ask for. He's a phenomenal workers. He's a great leader. He's everything you'd want in a teammate."
The Saints held the Atlanta offense 11 points under its average, forced two red-zone fumbles to take potential points off the board and blocked a punt for a touchdown, a 4-yard block and scoop by linebacker Michael Mauti that gave New Orleans a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.
The Saints' normally anemic pass rush got to Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan five times, forcing three fumbles. Atlanta entered the game as one of the NFL's best with a plus-5 takeaway-turnover margin.
New Orleans running back Mark Ingram scored twice on runs of 2 and 1 yards, and the Saints rolled up 207 yards of total offense and 17 points in the second half.
"We needed a win like this against a very good opponent," Brees said. "The team played great tonight in all three phases. I can't say enough about our defense. They did a phenomenal job. They got a bunch of takeaways, which is big time."
The key sequence came with the Saints leading 17-7 late in the third quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the Atlanta 4, instead of settling for a chip-shot field goal, Saints coach Sean Payton sent the offense back on the field. Using a hard count, Brees drew an encroachment penalty on defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, but the Saints still faced fourth down from the 2.
Brees then quickly set up the Saints at the line of scrimmage, faked a handoff to Ingram, drawing in linebacker Paul Worrilow, and he hit a wide-open Watson in the back of the end zone for a 24-7 lead.
"We were selling heavy run, and he was able to get behind the linebackers," Payton said.
Brees called the sequence the critical moment of the game.
"We drew them offsides, then got the quick snap and then got the TD," Brees said. "It took some marbles to call that."
The Falcons (5-1) had rallied for victories in the fourth quarter for four of their previous five wins, but they could not get closer than 10 points late in Thursday's game.
Ryan completed 30 of 44 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns, but he was hounded in the second half. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan had a season-high three sacks.
The Falcons moved the ball up and down the field in the first half, outgaining the Saints 265 yards to 174, but a blocked punt for a touchdown and two fumbles inside the Saints 15-yard line sent New Orleans into halftime leading 14-7.
"We knew that it would be a tough fight, and it certainly was," said Atlanta coach Dan Quinn. "It came down to protecting the football. To finish minus-3 was hard on us. They had a blocked punt. The turnovers really told the story of the game. It was hard to overcome those mistakes."
With the Saints leading 7-0, Mauti charged through a gap in the middle and blocked Matt Bosher's punt inside the Falcon 5-yard line. Mauti fell on the ball, got up and then barreled into the end zone.
The play was even more poignant because Steve Gleason, New Orleans' special teams ace was at the game. Gleason, who is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was shown on the large replay screen smiling broadly after Mauti's block.
"I looked up on the Jumbotron and saw Steve and I started crying," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief.
Ryan took the Falcons 80 yards in nine plays to cut the lead to 14-7 on a 7-yard pass to Roddy White in the left corner of the end zone. The Falcons drove inside the Saints 15 on their next two possessions, but the drives ended with a fumble by running back Tevin Coleman and a bad shotgun snap by reserve center James Stone.
The Falcons were not pushing the panic button after opening with five victories.
"We just need to keep continuing to push, just stick together," said Atlanta defensive tackle Tyson Jackson. "We'll be fine."
NOTES: The Saints' injury-depleted offensive line took another hit when rookie first-round draft pick Andrus Peat, starting at left tackle for Terron Armstead (knee), sustained what appeared to be a left knee injury on the game's first series. ... Atlanta WR Roddy White's 7-yard touchdown catch in the first half snapped a seven-game scoreless streak. ... Despite their recent home woes, the Saints won 16 of their last 17 prime-time games. ... The Falcons had trouble with their shotgun snaps from center James Stone, who brushed his thigh with one snap, leading to a Matt Ryan fumble. ... Atlanta FB Patrick DiMarco also ran into Ryan as he was setting up to block, forcing another fumble.