NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees set the NFL record for yards passing in a season, breaking a mark that Dan Marino had held for 27 years, and the New Orleans Saints clinched the NFC South title with a 45-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
Brees threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 9-yard strike to Darren Sproles that set the record with 2:51 to go.
It was Brees' final pass of the game, and it gave him 5,087 yards passing — with one game still to play. Marino finished with 5,084 yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984.
As Sproles spiked the ball, Brees put his arm over his head and started walking toward midfield while the Superdome crowd went wild and his teammates chased him down.
Brees' four touchdowns gave him 276 for his career, moving him ahead of Joe Montana (273) and Vinny Testeverde (275) for ninth all-time. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 5,000 yards twice — he had 5,069 in 2008.
Brees' first scoring pass went for 8 yards to Marques Colston and the second for 9 yards to Jimmy Graham. Graham's TD catch was his 10th of the season, a new franchise high for a tight end. In the third quarter, Brees hit Robert Meachem for a score from 24 yards, which made it 28-10.
The Saints also had 463 total yards, giving them more than 6,857 offensive yards for the season, breaking the 2008 club record of 6,571 yards. New Orleans continues to close in on the NFL-record of 7,075 offensive yards in a season set by the 2000 St. Louis Rams.
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 was intercepted twice in the game, once in the Falcons end zone, but New Orleans was still dominant enough to take a three-score 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.
Uncharacteristically, Brees had only a yard passing during a span of a little more than 18 minutes.
He finally gave the fans 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.
Matt Ryan had 258 yards passing and one TD, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Julio Jones that gave the Falcons a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter.
New Orleans responded with a 10-play, 81-yard scoring drive on which Brees completed four of six passes for 48 yards, the last three to Colston.
The result might have been even more lopsided if Brees' pass intended for Graham in the end zone had not been broken up by linebacker Curtis Lofton, and then batted in the air by safety William Moore before coming to rest in the arms of Dominique Franks for an interception.
New Orleans bounced back on its final drive of the second quarter, covering 80 yards in 10 plays and only 1:55, capped by Graham's TD catch.
Both teams scored on all their possessions in the opening quarter, with the Saints briefly pulling in front 7-3 on Pierre Thomas' 4-yard touchdown 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.
The score capped an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive on which Brees completed two passes for 49 yards.
The Saints entered the game needing only one victory to clinch the NFC South title, while Atlanta could have remained in the hunt to defend its 2010 division crown with a win.
After Atlanta received the opening kickoff, Ryan completed five of his first six throws for 52 yards, including a 20-yard completion to Roddy White at the New Orleans 23. The Saints' defense stiffened, however, forcing Atlanta to settle for Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
The Saints responded immediately, with Brees hitting Lance Moore for a 38-yard gain on New Orleans' first play from scrimmage. The Saints then went to the running game, with Chris Ivory rushing one time for 11 yards and Thomas three times for 24 yards, including his short TD run.
Thomas' unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, enforced on the ensuing kickoff, was not terribly costly, as Eric Weems returned it to the Atlanta 28. More costly was the Saints' inability to slow down Ryan, who quickly found Jones for a 25-yard gain and White for 16 yards to set up Jones' score.