ATLANTA -- Since Matt Ryan arrived in Atlanta and Drew Brees took over in New Orleans, the Falcons-Saints rivalry has been defined by offensive shootouts. On Thursday night, it was the Falcons' defense that made the loudest statement.
The young group that many hoped would take the next step after a promising end to the 2016 season may have done just that against an offense that has proven very difficult to slow down this year.
Atlanta's defense held New Orleans' potent offense to 306 yards, their lowest total of the season, and 50 yards on the ground, which was another season-low and broke an eight-game streak of at least 100 rushing yards for the Saints.
"Just guys locking in, playing fast and playing our style of ball," Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said after the game. "Even with a short week, all of the guys bought in and were focused on their details. This is just the outcome of how hard we worked during the week."
It's important to note that Alvin Kamara, the Saints' sensational rookie running back, left the game during New Orleans' opening drive with concussion-like symptoms and did not return to action. His absence appeared to impact the Saints' offensive game plan and left starter Mark Ingram to shoulder much of the burden.
Kamara wasn't the only injury to the Saints' offense, either. New Orleans entered the game without starting left guard Andrus Peat and they lost another guard in the first half when Senio Kelemete exited with a concussion. At various points in the fourth quarter, Ingram and receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. all left the game to with injuries, but they later returned to action.
Nevertheless, given what Brees has been able to do against the Falcons in his career, Thursday night was a memorable one for Atlanta's defense.
The Falcons forced the Saints to punt five times, their second-highest total this season, and sacked Brees twice, one by Dontari Poe and one by Adrian Clayborn. There were several big plays at key times from Falcons defenders, but none bigger than the one that forced the Saints' offense to the sideline for the final time Thursday night.
Deion Jones punctuated one of his best games for the Falcons with a game-clinching interception of Brees in the end zone. The second-year linebacker tied his career-high with 13 tackles, set a new career-high with three tackles for a loss and made the play of the game to secure a vital win for Atlanta.
"I can't wait to see it," Quinn said of Jones' leaping interception. "Anytime you have to take a while to land, you know you're up there. He definitely went up and reached for it. In terms of his ability to go make plays, it showed up again tonight. That's part of preparation, that's part of him, the athlete. Those guys on defense, I thought they really stood up; they showed a lot of resiliency."
Seeing Brees and the Saints march down the field in the closing minutes of a close game has become a familiar sight to Falcons fans. Atlanta's defense wouldn't let its tenacious effort go to waste, however.
When Jones fell onto his back with the ball clutched tightly to his chest, he denied one of the hottest teams in the NFL their dramatic victory and reminded everyone why the Falcons shouldn't be ignored in the NFC. "It wasn't all pretty," Quinn said. "There were definitely things for us that we'll clean up on moving forward, but for tonight, we knew it was going to be hard-fought. I thought the team on a short week did an excellent job in their preparation to get ready. I love this team and what they stand for as a group of guys."