Best of 2014: Top Five Performances of the Year

1. Julio's Epic Night in Week 14

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones owned the primetime spotlight at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers in Week 14. His efforts in the first half alone were a sign of great things to come as Jones caught five passes for 100 yards. He finished the contest by setting a franchise record with 259 receiving yards on 11 catches, including a 22-yard touchdown reception. Jones' effort topped Roddy White's mark of 210 receiving yards set at San Francisco in 2009.

His 259-yard outburst was the best performance by any receiver in 2014. What's even more remarkable is that he didn't even play the full game, forced out of the contest in the fourth quarter with a hip injury. Jones also set a franchise record for single-season receiving yards before the night was over (1,428), later finishing the season with 1,593 yards. 

2. Devin Hester's Record-Breaking Night in Week 3

History was calling in Week 3 for Falcons wide receiver Devin Hester, who answered in unforgettable fashion. Already recording his first-career rushing touchdown in the second quarter, Hester broke Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders' NFL record for career-return touchdowns with a 62-yard punt return score, giving his team a 35-0 lead. It was Hester's 20th-career return score, having previously returned 14 punts, five kickoffs and one blocked field goal for touchdowns in his career.

The Thursday Night Football contest marked Hester's fourth-career multi-touchdown game. He added one catch for 25 yards and one kickoff return for 29 yards and finished the game with 142 total yards on six touches with two scores.

3. Matt Ryan's Career Day in Week 3

While the Week 3 win was clearly Hester's night, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also had a record-breaking game, completing 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards with three touchdowns and a career-high 155.9 passer rating. His 87.5 completion percentage and 155.9 quarterback rating set new single-game franchise records.

He completed 11-of-12 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, a 3-yard score to Harry Douglas and 8-yard scoring strike to Julio Jones. He also posted a passer rating of 150.3, the second highest first-quarter rating of his career when throwing at least 10 passes (Sept. 15, 2013 – 152.2). Ryan finished his three-touchdown effort with a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw to Jones for a 40-yard score, leading to the 56-14 win.

4. Falcons Dominate Defense in the Big Easy

The Week 16 matchup was essentially a win-or-go-home contest. On the road against the longtime-rival New Orleans Saints, the Falcons defense did more than its share to clinch the win. Atlanta forced four turnovers, including interceptions from Desmond Trufant and Robert McClain as well as a forced fumble by Kemal Ishmael.

Trufant picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a key fourth down play in the first quarter, while McClain intercepted Brees at the Saints 18-yard line with just 2:35 remaining, setting up an insurance score in the form of a 32-yard field goal by Falcons kicker Matt Bryant.

With the Saints threatening to score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Ishmael and Dezmen Southward stuffed Saints tight end Jimmy Graham at the goal line, with Ishmael ripping the ball loose and returning the fumble 18 yards to the Falcons' 20-yard line. 

Atlanta's defense notched a season-high five sacks against New Orleans, including three sacks in the first half. Jonathan Babineaux, rookie Ra'Shede Hageman, and Dwight Lowery each dropped Brees for a loss in the first half, while Osi Umenyiora and Corey Peters sacked him in the second half.

Late in the fourth quarter, Kroy Biermann sealed the Falcons 30-14 victory with a sack and forced fumble at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Umenyiora scooped up the loose ball and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. 

5. Matt Bryant's Clutch Kicks in Week 1

The team's other "Matty Ice" was absolutely clutch all season long, beginning with his unforgettable Week 1 performance against New Orleans. Trailing the Saints 34-31 in the fourth quarter, Bryant connected on a 51-yard field goal to tie the game as time expired. Minutes later, Bryant split the uprights with a 52-yard game winner in overtime, marking the 17th game-winning kick of his career and his eighth as a Falcon.

Bryant's final kick in the 37-34 OT win was also his second-longest game-winning kick since joining the Falcons in 2009.

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