NEW ORLEANS - Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton pounded his fist into the Louisiana Superdome turf after Pierre Thomas bowled over him for a first down.

The game-sealing carry provided the perfect punctuation for the Saints' undrafted, second-year running back following the most important performance of his young career.

Thomas rushed for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns yesterday, helping New Orleans keep alive its slim playoff hopes with a 29-25 victory over division rival Atlanta.

"He's a great young talent. He comes up big for us when need be," Saints fullback Mike 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."

Thomas scored his first touchdown on a 7-yard screen 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 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 minutes, 51 seconds to go.

New Orleans needed a clutch carry from Karney on that drive as well. Saints coach Sean Payton decided against trying a tying field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 7. The 5-11, 255-pound Karney pushed the line of scrimmage for 2 yards.

"The line did a great job up front and I was able to ride the wave and get that yard," Karney said.

Reggie Bush added 80 yards rushing, including a career-best 43-yard run that set up his 5-yard touchdown catch.

Drew Brees (18-for-32, 230 yards) threw for two touchdowns in one of the most balanced performances this season by New Orleans' 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 Atlanta (8-5).

"We wanted to make that a point, that we could run the ball on these guys," Thomas said. "[Payton] had faith in us to run the ball hard. We took it to 'em."

Late last season, Thomas made his first start in his hometown of Chicago (where New Orleans also plays Thursday) and became the only Saint to eclipse 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. That was in a loss that formally eliminated New Orleans from the playoffs.

Thomas didn't rush for 100 yards again until yesterday's win.

Ryan (24-for-33, 315 yards) threw for a touchdown and an interception by Jason David, whose 23-yard return to midfield led to Bush's TD in the first quarter. *