NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton rarely shies away from risks — and desperate times only seem to embolden him.
The Saints' coach decided against a short, game-tying field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 with under seven minutes left in a crucial divisional game against Atlanta, opting instead to give fullback Mike Karney his only carry of the game.
Karney powered ahead for the first down, Pierre Thomas scored on the next play, and the Saints preserved their slim playoff hopes with a 29-25 victory on Sunday.
"I felt like we were going to need more than just a field goal," Payton said. "It was really an opportunity to put it on the guys up front to get a little less than a yard. Mike Karney did a good job; he got a lot of push inside."
The Saints have struggled in short-yardage situations all season and were 0-3 on third-and-1 before Karney pushed the pile.
"We need to continue to work on that down-and-distance and be a little bit more consistent there," Payton said, "but at least we were able to get it."
Thomas rushed for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns, the first on a 7-yard screen pass early in the fourth quarter.
He powered in for the winning touchdown on a 5-yard toss sweep, bouncing over offensive lineman Carl Nicks as he stretched for the goal line. Thomas, who New Orleans signed as an undrafted rookie last season, also set up that last score with an 88-yard kickoff return after Matt Ryan's 12-yard scramble had given the Falcons a 25-22 lead with 7:51 to go.
"He's a great young talent. He comes up big for us when need be," Karney said. "He had to earn his way and get a feel for what's going on. He's done that and the coaches are going to him."
Reggie Bush added 80 yards rushing, including a career-long 43-yard run that set up his 5-yard touchdown catch.
Drew Brees was 18-of-32 for 230 yards and two TDs in one of the most balanced performances this season by New Orleans' normally pass-heavy offense. The Saints (7-6) finished with a season-high 184 yards rushing.
The Saints rushed 18 times for only 44 yards in a 23-20 loss at Tampa Bay a week earlier. Payton pledged more balance against NFC South rival Atlanta (8-5).
Ryan was 24-of-33 for 315 yards, one touchdown and an interception by Jason David, whose 23-yard return to midfield led to Bush's TD in the first quarter.
Ryan connected 10 times with Roddy White, who finished with a career-high 164 yards receiving, including a 59-yard catch in the second quarter that set up Michael Turner's 5-yard touchdown run.
However, Atlanta coach Mike Smith made a conservative decision to punt on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 35 with two timeouts and 3:23 left. It backfired when Thomas rushed for two first downs and New Orleans ran out the clock.
"You got to believe that you can get a stop, especially with that much time left," Smith said. "There was no question in my mind that the right thing to do was go ahead and punt it and put the defense back out there on the field and get a stop. And we weren't able to do it."
The Saints' defense, bolstered by a court ruling allowing end Will Smith to play, limited Turner to 61 yards on 18 carries and held Atlanta to 99 yards rushing as a team.
Friday's ruling also allowed Saints running back Deuce McAllister to suit up. The players, and Minnesota defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, had been suspended for the final four regular-season games for violating the NFL's anti-doping policy. The NFLPA sued, however, and a judge temporarily blocked the suspensions while the case proceeds.
Smith was in on six tackles, including one for a 5-yard loss. McAllister entered the game in the second quarter on third-and-1, drawing cheers from the crowd. He was stopped for no gain, leading to Garrett Hartley's 26-yard field goal for a brief 10-0 lead before Turner's TD.
Hartley later added a 46-yarder, but Atlanta responded with a 77-yard drive and took a 14-13 lead when Ryan completed a 2-yard pass that Brian Finneran caught acrobatically along the sideline. Payton compounded the damage for New Orleans with a failed challenge, which left the Saints with no timeouts for the final 2:13 of the half.
New Orleans drove to Atlanta's 7, but had to settle for Hartley's 25-yard field goal for a 16-14 lead at the half.
Notes:@ Saints CB Randall Gay left in the first quarter with a concussion. ... Kickoff returner Courtney Roby left with a right ankle injury in the third quarter and Thomas returned his only kickoff in the fourth quarter. ... Hartley has made all 11 field goal attempts since joining the Saints five games ago. ... NFC South teams are 23-2 overall at home and 9-0 in home divisional games. The Saints are 6-1 in home games. ... The Falcons have yet to win a game (0-4) in which they failed to score first.