Falcons stop Saints to keep division hopes alive
ATLANTA — The defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons showed Thursday night that they aren’t ready to concede the division title just yet.
Linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a Drew Brees pass in the end zone with less than two minutes remaining to preserve the Falcons’ 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
“I thought they were going to try me and go to the tight end. I had to bow up for my brothers,” said Jones, who was in on 13 tackles.
Brees said, “That was not a chance I should have taken.”
Matt Bryant provided the winning margin on a 52-yard field goal with just under four minutes remaining as the Falcons (8-5) moved within a game of the Saints (9-4).
After Jones’ interception, Atlanta was able to run out the clock with the help of an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on New Orleans coach Sean Payton.
The Falcons got nine first downs on penalties by the Saints, who were flagged 11 times for 87 yards.
“It was a disappointing loss. I thought we had to fight a lot of things outside of the football game,” said Payton, unhappy with all the flags. “I’ve never been a part of a game like that.”
The Falcons won despite Matt Ryan throwing three interceptions. The Atlanta quarterback finished 15 of 27 for 221 yards and a touchdown.
Brees completed 26 of 35 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns but threw the costly interception.
The Saints, rejecting a field-goal try, converted a fourth-down play and were at the 11-yard line when Brees tried to hit Josh Hill.
“You never want to see Drew Brees going down the field in the closing minutes,” Ryan said. “I’ve seen it too many times. But Deion made an awesome play. Great hands. He’s going to be a good player in his league for a long time.”
Brees had to carry more of the load for the Saints after versatile rookie running back Alvin Kamara sustained a concussion on the game’s first series.
The Falcons forced a tie with just under 10 minutes left on an 8-yard pass from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. The play capped an 11-play, 69-yard drive that took more than seven minutes.
Ryan, who was picked off by Marshon Lattimore at the end of the first half, had his first pass off the second half intercepted by Chris Banjo. The Saints cashed the turnover in on a 1-yard scoring pass from Brees to Michael Thomas for a 17-10 lead.
Then Ryan was picked off for the third time in four throws when Marcus Williams grabbed a pass thrown into the back of the end zone with Julio Jones well covered.
The first half ended in a 10-10 tie when a 47-yard field goal by Wil Lutz was nullified by an illegal formation and the Saints didn’t get another play with time expired.
Earlier in the second quarter, the Falcons consumed more than eight minutes in going 90 yards on 15 plays, with Devonta Freeman scoring from the 1-yard line to produce a 10-3 lead.
The Saints answered quickly, though, as Brees connected with Tommylee Lewis for a 26-yard touchdown.
The Saints lost Kamara on the game’s opening drive, which ended with a 34-yard field goal by Lutz that was matched by a 28-yard field goal by Bryant.
Kamara, who came in with 1,220 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns, was hurt on a helmet-to-helmet hit by linebacker Jones while being dropped for a 4-yard loss on a pass from Brees.
Kamara, a third-round draft pick from Tennessee who grew up outside Atlanta, had three catches for 25 yards and one rush for 2 yards before being hurt.
Mark Ingram, forced to carry an expanded role, had 12 rushes for 49 yards and four catches for 43 yards.
“I felt like we had control of the game but didn’t finish,” Ingram said.
New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas had 10 catches for 117 yards. Sanu made six receptions for 83 yards, and Julio Jones made five grabs for 98 yards.
The Falcons can win the NFC South with victories in their final three games, all within the division.
“We’re right in the mix and we control our own destiny,” Ryan said.
“We’ve always got our brothers’ backs,” Deion Jones said of the defense picking up the offense. “They pass the baton to us, and that’s how we roll. We just pass the baton to each other and make the most of our opportunities.”
NOTES: The Saints lost LB A.J. Klein (groin) in the first quarter and S Kenny Vaccaro (groin) and DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle) in the second quarter. ... CB Desmond Trufant (concussion) and NB Brian Poole (lower) returned for the Falcons after missing a game. ... Saints rookie CB Marshon Lattimore had an interception in his return after missing two games with an ankle injury. ... FS Marcus Williams (groin) also returned for New Orleans and had an interception. ... Falcons LG Andy Levitre (triceps) had his streak of 140 consecutive starts broken. It had been the longest active streak for an interior lineman in the NFL. ... The Saints were without LG Andrus Peat (groin), and his replacement, G/C Senio Kelemete, sustained a concussion in the second quarter. ... Former RB Warrick Dunn became the 10th member of the Falcons’ Ring of Fame during halftime ceremonies. ... The Saints and Falcons play in New Orleans on Dec. 24.