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Falcons drop a close one in New Orleans
Leftwich hurt, Atlanta still winless in NFC South
Falcons 3 col BW
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich, lower left, sits on the bench and has his ankle checked as teammates look on in the second half in the Superdome in New Orleans Sunday. Leftwich did not return to the game and the Saints won, 22-16. - photo by Associated Press

    NEW ORLEANS — Call him Reggie ‘‘The Bruiser’’ Bush.

    People know the flashy Heisman Trophy winner out of Southern Cal by all those highlights of him cutting, spinning and sprinting away from people in the open field.

    Yet it was his underrated power and grit that turned a day of frustration into one of celebration for the New Orleans Saints.

    His legs churning and body squirming as three Atlanta tacklers met him around the 2-yard line, Bush spun free and dived across the goal line on a crucial third-and-goal screen pass. His touchdown lifted New Orleans to a 22-16 victory over the Falcons on Sunday.

    ‘‘How about Reggie Bush today? That was unbelievable,’’ Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. ‘‘You hear about all the (flack) he’s taken from people for not being able to run downhill ... but that guy competes more than many people I’ve ever seen in the league. There was no chance he wasn’t going to score on that.’’

    Bush threw the ball into the second deck of the Louisiana Superdome after the score. While fans chanted ‘‘REG-GIE, REG-GIE’’ in celebration, Bush took a handoff on a 2-point conversion, raced to the sideline and dived for the pylon to put the Saints (2-4) up by six points with 5:04 remaining.

    ‘‘I was just excited to make a play for my team. We struggled throughout the game. We really didn’t have the game we wanted to,’’ Bush said. ‘‘I just kept fighting, kept my feet moving and refused to go down.

    the Falcons punted with under 2 minutes to go and all of their timeouts left, Bush clinched the game with 7-yard first-down run, allowing the Saints to run out the clock.

    Bush finished with only 54 yards rushing and 19 yards receiving on a difficult day during which New Orleans’ offense often sputtered. He also had several good gains called back by penalties.

    Atlanta (1-6) lost more than a game. Its newest starting quarterback, Byron Leftwich, left with what coach Bobby Petrino said was a high ankle sprain after Saints defensive end Will Smith brought him down on a long incompletion early in the third quarter.

    Joey Harrington, the starter until a loss to the New York Giants a week earlier, finished the game, going 12-of-18 for 128 yards. He led one scoring drive, which ended with Morten Andersen’s 21-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 16-14 lead with 10:19 left.

    Leftwich, who was cut by Jacksonville shortly before the season, completed 15 of 23 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown pass to Roddy White. He also led a pair of scoring drives that ended with Andersen field goals of 38 and 31 yards, giving the Falcons a 13-7 halftime lead.

    ‘‘I was happy with the way he performed,’’ Petrino said. ‘‘He was standing in there. He made good throws. The injury certainly hurt.’’

    Leftwich, a courageous pocket passer who’s been beat up throughout his career, said after the game he did not know how long he’d be out and was too upset to speak at length.

    ‘‘It’s really, really frustrating out there right now, man,’’ he began. ‘‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this.’’

    Pierre Thomas, an undrafted rookie who made the Saints’ regular season roster against long odds, scored on a darting, tackle-breaking 24-yard run in the third quarter. Drew Brees gave New Orleans an early 7-0 lead with a 37-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Devery Henderson.

    However, the Saints had only three first downs and ran only 14 plays on their first four drives combined.

    A pair of Andersen field goals made it 7-6, then Leftwich gave Atlanta a 13-7 lead with his 9-yard pass to White.

    The Saints moved the ball on their final drive of the half, but on fourth-and-2 from the Atlanta 34, coach Sean Payton kept his offense on the field. As kicker Olindo Mare, who has struggled on long field goals this season, watched from the sidelines, Brees rolled out and threw his 10th interception of the season.

    Brees recovered to finish 22-of-34 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a clutch third-down slant pass to Marques Colston, who slipped a tackle for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 31 on the game-winning drive.

Notes: Saints starting center Jeff Faine missed most of the second half with a left pectoral injury. ... Atlanta rookie left tackle Renardo Foster had to be carted off the field with a left knee injury in the fourth quarter. ... New Orleans fans booed Andersen, a former Saint, when he lined up to kick 38- and 33-yard field goals in the first half. The 47-year-old played for New Orleans from 1982-94 and holds numerous Saints records, including scoring (1,318) and field goals made (302). ... Joe Horn’s first catch in the Superdome since he left the Saints for the Falcons was an 11-yard reception in the second quarter. He also received a few boos, finishing with three catches for 25 yards.