ATLANTA — A swarm of bright red submerged Deion Jones as he held the ball tightly in the end zone.
Jones intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone with 1 minute, 25 seconds to play, capping a stellar defensive effort against a potent Saints offense in what no doubt was the biggest Falcons’ victory of the season, a 20-17 triumph over their biggest rival and the NFC South leaders.
“It hurt coming down, too,” Jones said with a laugh as he reflected on leaping up with both feet and landing on his back.
The pain was worth it. Now 8-5, the Falcons can continue the playoff conversation. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Falcons’ chances to make the postseason increased from 36 percent to 52 percent with the win. Had they lost, those chances would have dropped to 19 percent.
Most figured the offense would be what guided the Falcons to victory. But reigning MVP Matt Ryan struggled miserably, throwing three interceptions, two of which he pointed the blame at himself. Penalties were a factor again on offense. And there was a questionable declined penalty late by Falcons coach Dan Quinn that allowed the Saints to convert a fourth-and-1 and keep a potentially game-winning drive alive. Quinn later said he thought New Orleans would attempt a tying field goal.
Then Jones, the New Orleans native who grew up rooting for the Saints, stepped in and stole the show. Literally. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound middle linebacker saw Brees try to isolate him against 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Josh Hill, but Jones was up for the challenge.
“When the tight end looked back, I looked back, and the ball was right there,” said Jones, who also had a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown against Brees in New Orleans last season in a game that started what’s now a three-game win streak for the Falcons in the series. “I just tried to make a play on the ball, and I happened to catch it. It was a long way down, but I held on to it.”
It was Brees’ first red-zone interception of the season and just Atlanta’s fourth overall. And the Falcons limited the Saints to 3-of-10 on third down, part of the reason a team that entered Thursday scoring 29.4 points per game managed only 17.
“We always talk about being closers and being the baddest on the field,” Jones said. “That’s just a product of how hard we work. And I’m proud.”
Ryan was proud, too, of the way Jones helped bail him out of a bad game. Jones finished with a game-high 13 tackles, three tackles for losses, two passes defended and that breathtaking, game-sealing interception.
“Deion’s a special player,” Ryan said. “And I think he’s going to be a guy that a lot of people know about for a long time. He’s a really good player and made a great play right there.”
True, the Falcons benefited on offense from a slew of New Orleans penalties that resulted in first downs — eight, to be exact. But no matter how they got it done, it was an important victory. Touchdowns by Devonta Freeman and Mohamed Sanu, along with two field goals by Matt Bryant — who reached 1,000 points with the Falcons — helped secure the victory.
Now the Falcons — still seventh in the playoff picture, right behind the Carolina Panthers (8-4) — have to build off the win, no matter how ugly it was. They have consecutive road games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans before finishing the season at home against the Panthers. The postseason is within reach — if the Falcons handle their business.
“You already know we don’t think about playoffs,” said Clayborn, who leads the team with nine sacks. “It’s nice to put together good games to show that we can do it every game. And we expect that every game.”
The fact that Jones, Clayborn, and the entire defense are stepping up at the right time is a positive sign that could lead right to a postseason berth.