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Brees might have broken the record in the third quarter if not for Sproles' 92-yard kickoff return, which set up John Kasay's 29-yard field goal. Brees also threw two interceptions, but New Orleans was still dominant enough to take a big lead.
The game became a romp when Julio Jones was stripped by Scott Shanle and Malcolm Jenkins returned it 30 yards for a score to make it 38-16 in the fourth quarter. The Superdome crowd was in full celebration by then, but the play also meant fans would have to wait until later in the fourth quarter before Brees finally got his chance to break the passing record.
The Saints can earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye with a win Sunday over Carolina and a San Francisco loss at St. Louis, which is 2-13.
Atlanta (9-6) is headed to the playoffs as a wild card.
Uncharacteristically, Brees had only a yard passing during a span of a little more than 18 minutes in the second half. Fans howled "Drewwww" each time he took the field, and he finally gave them what they wanted after Atlanta failed on a fourth-down try at its own 33. That gave Brees, who needed only 30 yards for the record at that point, just enough space to work with.
The Saints didn't need another score, but Saints coach Sean Payton said he thought giving Brees a chance to go for the record was "appropriate."
Falcons coach Mike Smith diplomatically deflected questions about that, saying only, "It is our job to go out there and stop them. It doesn't matter if they are running the ball or throwing the ball."
Matt Ryan had 373 yards passing and one TD, including an early 21-yard scoring strike to Jones.
"We didn't really play well enough in any phase of the game to give ourselves a chance," said Smith, whose team came in with a chance to stay in the hunt for the division title. "It's not the type of effort that you want to have with so much on the line with what the outcome could have meant to our team."
Pierre Thomas scored New Orleans' first touchdown on a 4-yard run, after which he pulled a bow from his uniform pants, put it on the football and offered it as a gift to a woman with a parasol in the front row behind the end zone.
The referees weren't cutting Thomas any slack on his Christmas-themed celebration, flagging him for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
NOTES: Brees has passed for 300 yards or more an NFL-record 12 times this season. ... New England quarterback Tom Brady could also pass Marino next week -- and maybe even Brees, too. Brady has thrown for 4,897 yards. ... The Saints are 7-0 at home and never have gone undefeated at home in a full season.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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