By Adesina O. Koiki
ATLANTA – Not only did the Atlanta Falcons defense have its back against the wall late against New Orleans, the team’s season was virtually on the line, as a loss would have been a damaging blow to its playoff hopes.
Falcons linebacker Deion Jones made sure the defense made the biggest play of the season to keep those playoff hopes realistically alive, as his interception in the end zone saved the game for the Falcons, as they defeated the Saints 20-17 on Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With the win, the Falcons (8-5) move within one game of the Saints for first place in the NFC South, and, with wins in their final three games, the Falcons are assured the NFC South title for a second consecutive season.
New Orleans was marching its way toward the game-winning score, inside of the Falcons’ 15-yard line with 90 seconds remaining, before Jones cut in front of Saints tight end Josh Hill and made a leaping interception of a pass from Drew Brees in the end zone to extinguish the Saints’ last chance at victory.
“I knew I was isolated and I thought Drew [Brees] knew that,” said Jones when describing the game-saving interception. “When the tight end looked back, I looked back and the ball was right there. I just tried to make a play on the ball and I happened to catch it.”
Catching the ball was one thing. Surviving the fall to the ground and keeping possession of the ball, after leaping high in the air to make the interception, brought its own issues.
“It was a long way down but I held on to it,” Jones said. “I was just thinking to hold on to the ball. It’s all about the ball. Once I realized that I had it, I knew it was going to be a long way down. I felt my feet in the air and I just wanted to hold on to it and get up with the ball. I just opened up my eyes and all my brothers were standing right there.”
The Falcons are still standing and accounted for in the race to win the NFC South despite an uncharacteristically poor game at home from Falcons veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw three interceptions – all coming on consecutive drives between the second and third quarters.
“Sometimes it goes that way, and you’ve got to keep battling and keep your mindset right,” said Ryan in the postgame press conference. “I was pleased with how I did that, and I was pleased with how our entire team did that.”
Ryan’s second interception, on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, was a pass that tight end Austin Hooper initially caught, but then bobbled into the hands of safety Chris Banjo at the Atlanta 29-yard line. Four plays later, Brees threw a 1-yard touchdown to wide receiver Michael Thomas to give New Orleans a 17-10 lead.
Atlanta responded by marching down the field, reaching the Saints’ 9-yard line, before disaster struck once more. On a third down, Ryan rolled out of the pocket to his left before lobbing a pass into the end zone for Julio Jones that was intercepted by safety Marcus Williams.
Fortunately for the Falcons, their defense kept the Saints offense in check in the second half after the opening touchdown, continuing to force the Saints to punt before the offense found its footing in the fourth quarter.
On the 69-yard scoring drive for Atlanta that led to the tying score, the Falcons were aided by three Saints penalties that gave them automatic first downs. Ryan finally threw a touchdown pass in the game after hitting Mohamed Sanu on a pass up the middle from eight yards out to tie the game at 17 with just under 10 minutes remaining in regulation.
After Atlanta forced another New Orleans punt, Ryan connected with Sanu for 22 yards to start the drive. It ended with a Matt Bryant 52-yard field goal with 3:54 remaining to give Atlanta a 20-17 lead.
New Orleans, on its potential game-winning drive, started it with a 35-yard pass from Brees to Thomas to get the Saints into Falcons territory. A few plays later came a controversial decision from Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who decided to decline a holding penalty that occurred on an incomplete pass when the Saints were facing a third-and-1 from the Falcons’ 24-yard line. On fourth-and-1, New Orleans decided to go for it, and Brees converted when he gained two yards on a quarterback sneak.
“I thought they were going to kick it,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn in explaining his decision to decline the penalty. “You don’t get those do-overs to go. I know how good they are. I thought that here’s a fourth-down stop, and they would kick it to tie it. That’s why we were trying to use the timeouts there. That was really the only reason. We didn’t want to move it back some and give them a chance at a potential first down.”
The Saints got the first down regardless, but were thwarted a few plays later when Jones came up with the interception in the end zone to seal the win for the Falcons.
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have thrown it,” said Brees, who finished the day with two touchdown passes to go along with that interception. “They made a nice play. It wasn’t worth the risk right there, especially when you know that you have points. It’s not like you have to have a touchdown to tie.”
Along with the defense, running back Devonta Freeman was a bright spot for the Falcons, as he rushed for 91 yards and accounted for the Falcons only touchdown in the first half on a one-yard touchdown run.
Atlanta will now have 10 days off before taking the field once again, taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Monday, Dec. 18 at 8:30 PM EST.