ATLANTA – Deion Jones picked off a Drew Brees pass in the end zone with 1:25 remaining in regulation to thwart a potential go-ahead score and preserve the Falcons' 20-17 win over NFC South rival New Orleans on Thursday night.
With the win, the Falcons improve to 8-5 and keep pace in the NFC South as well as the NFC playoff race. The loss was the Saints' first in the division – they're now 3-1 – and they also drop to 9-4 overall. Carolina (8-4) currently stands between New Orleans and Atlanta in second place. The Panthers are 2-2 in division play.
"We got the job done," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Obviously, it was an up-and-down game. It was a battle, for sure. We made some mistakes. We were able to overcome them. But, good teams find ways to win and that's what I thought we did tonight. Our defense stepped up and played extremely well. I think New Orleans has been averaging 30-plus points a game. For our defense to step up and play the way they did tonight was impressive."
Injuries, penalties and turnovers were the main storylines of Thursday night's clash.
New Orleans lost a number of starters during the game, but none of the injuries were as big as rookie running back Alvin Kamara's concussion, which he suffered on the Saints' opening drive. Kamara, the favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors, caught three passes for 25 yards and had just one carry for 2 yards before he was ruled out. Other key Saints injuries included:
- Offensive lineman Senio Kelemete (out with concussion)
- Linebacker A.J. Klein (questionable, groin injury)
- Defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson (questionable, ankle injury)
- Safety Kenny Vaccaro (questionable, groin injury)
- Defensive tackle David Onyemata (apparent leg injury)
Instead of a big offensive fireworks display led by Brees and Ryan, this back-and-forth battle turned into the second straight defensive battle for the Falcons. And the Falcons answered the bell, led by Jones's spectacular night. The Falcons' second-year linebacker finished with 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two passes defensed and, of course, the game-sealing interception.
Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn each registered sacks for the Falcons, who held Brees and the Saints offense to 306 total yards, the lowest output of the season.
Ryan had a forgettable night, completing 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown (watch below). But the veteran quarterback also tossed three interceptions (all within four pass attempts) -- and it was the the second three-pick game for him this season.
"I've had worse games," Ryan said. "Yeah, I've thrown five before. I think it comes with experience. I think that comes with confidence and belief in yourself. Sometimes that's how it goes. That's the case in all sports.
"There are nights that are like that, but those don't define the outcome of the game. How you respond to those situations defines who you are as a player and who you are as a team. I thought that was critical for us as a team tonight to be able to respond on both sides of the ball. To make plays and to just gut it out and find a way to win."
Normally three turnovers would doom a team in such a close game, but the Falcons defense and the 11 penalties (for 87 yards) called against the Saints helped even things out.
Crazy ending to the first half
It appeared that the Saints were going to take a 13-10 lead into halftime when Will Lutz booted a 47-yard field goal as time ran out. Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore put New Orleans in scoring position when he picked off Matt Ryan during in the final seconds of the second quarter.
After Lutz's kick sailed through the uprights, a penalty flag was thrown. The call? Illegal formation, which is not a pre-snap foul. Since the clock hit zero as Lutz's field goal crossed the uprights, the first half officially came to an end and the Saints weren't eligible for an untimed down after the penalty. The score remained 10-10, and a lot of people were left questioning what happened. For more on this story, click here.
What the win means for the Falcons
With the win, the Falcons improve to 8-5 and 2-1 in the NFC South. They're still on the outside looking in when it comes to the sixth and final wild-card spot, but that could change if the Seahawks (8-4) lose at Jacksonville on Sunday.
What is next for the Falcons
The Falcons won't play again until Dec. 18, when they take on the Buccaneers in Tampa on "Monday Night Football." That's a much-needed 11-day stretch, especially coming off the short week. Tampa Bay (4-8) hosts the Detroit Lions (6-6) at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Recap Thursday night's game with the in-game blog
We provided live updates and analysis during Thursday night's game against the Saints as well as highlights, stats and additional insights. You can recap all the action below.