FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan misfiring, the team needed a defensive stop to stay in the NFC playoff race and pick up some ground on the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
Ryan, the reigning most valuable player, tossed three interceptions - on consecutive possessions - and finished with a passer rating of 55.2. But the Falcons were able to overcome his porous play when linebacker Deion Jones made an interception in the end zone to thwart a late Saints scoring threat.
With the game on the line, Jones leaped high to haul down a pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to preserve a hard-fought 20-17 victory.
"Deion Jones made a terrific play to cap it off," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said.
The Falcons improved to 8-5, while the Saints dropped to 9-4. The Falcons trail the Saints by one game with three games to play. The two teams meet again on Dec. 24 in New Orleans. The Falcons must face Tampa Bay on Monday, Dec. 18.
On a day that the Falcons' offense was coloring outside the lines, the defense had to come up with big plays to earn the victory.
"We didn't know which phase it was going to come down to at the end," Quinn said. "We hadn't even talked about that. Was it going to be Matt Bryant trying to kick one to win it? Was it going to be the two-minute offense to go after the touchdown, or would the defense have to get a stop to answer? It wasn't all pretty."
With Ryan misfiring, the Falcons somehow built a 20-17 lead. The Saints had the ball and were driving.
"There were things for us that we'll clean up moving forward," Quinn said. "We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle. I thought the team, on a short week, did an excellent job in their preparation to get ready. Like I said, I love this team and what they stand for as a group of guys."
Quinn turned down a penalty thinking the Saints would kick a field goal on fourth-and-inches. But the Saints elected to go for the first down and picked it up.
Two plays later, on second-and-10 from the Atlanta 11, Brees tried to connect with tight end Josh Hill. But Jones dropped back into his zone and made an incredible play on the ball.
"I knew I was isolated," Jones said. "I thought Drew knew that. When the tight end looked back, I looked back and the ball was right there. I tried to make a play on the ball. I just happened to catch. It was a long way down. But I had to hold on to it."
Jones cradled the ball with both arms.
"I was to the right of him," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "He jumped off the ground pretty high. He was up there. He couldn't land on his feet. He ended up falling on his neck. I was surprised he still caught it. But I'm happy that he did."
Jones was all over the field for the Falcons.
He was in the backfield making tackles. He was in the flat busting up screen plays. He was down the field in zone attacking balls thrown over his head.
Jones finished with 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and one potentially season-saving interception.
He is asked to do a lot in the Falcons' defensive scheme.
Quinn credited defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich with knowing how to utilize Jones.
They have roles for him in man-to-man defenses and zone coverages.
Jones was happy to help the save the game.
"It's great, Jones said. "We always talk about getting closure. Being the baddest on the field. It's a product of our hard work."
After Ryan's three interceptions, the defense allowed only one score.
"The offense I feel like they did a great job," Jones said. "Things just happened. We have had to have their back and make the most of the opportunities when we are out there."
REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B - QB Matt Ryan was intercepted in the final minute of the second quarter and nearly cost the Falcons a field goal. Ryan had plenty of time to throw, but the Saints played tight coverage. He had interceptions on three consecutive possessions. Tight end Austin Hooper had a pass that hit him in the chest intercepted on the first play of the third quarter by Saints safety Chris Banjo. Safety Marcus Williams intercepted an ill-advised pass in the end zone on the Falcons' next possession. The Saints converted the turnover into a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead. Ryan answered with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 10:01 left in the fourth quarter. Jones finished with five catches for 98 yards.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A - The Falcons' run game wasn't netting much early, but they stayed with the run and it eventually paid off. Devonta Freeman carried most of the load. He had a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to put the Falcons up 10-3. He had 11 rushes for 30 yards at halftime, for a paltry 2.7 average per carry. Tevin Coleman wasn't much better with four carries for 15 yards for a 3.8 average. They got the run game rolling in the second half and that was key as Ryan didn't have his best performance. Freeman rushed 24 times for 91 yards. Coleman finished with 32 yards on nine carries before leaving the game with a concussion.
--PASS DEFENSE: B-plus - The Falcons had a mixup on Tommylee Lewis' 26-yard touchdown pass and didn't defend the pick play any better near the goal line that resulted in a Drew Brees to Mike Thomas 1-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Adrian Clayborn had a big sack midway through the fourth quarter to get the ball back for the offense with the score tied.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B - The Falcons knocked rookie sensation Alvin Kamara out of the game in the first quarter. He suffered a concussion on a hit from linebacker Deion Jones on second-and-10 from Atlanta's 12. Kamara did not return. Mark Ingram II had eight rushes for 33 yards for a respectable 4.1 yards per carry at the half. Jones was all over the field making tackles and blowing up screen plays.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B - Matt Bryant made a 28-yard field goal to cap the Falcons' first possession and put them ahead 20-17 with a 52-yarder in the fourth quarter. That field goal gave him 1,000 points during his career with the Falcons. Punter Matt Bosher had one punt for 49 yards early. Duke Riley was strong in coverage. The Saints had a bizarre penalty to take a field goal off the board right before halftime when they aligned in an illegal formation. Bosher's 34-yard punt in the third quarter had 4.91 seconds of hang time and forced Lewis to make a fair catch.
--COACHING: C - The offense continued to sputter as the offensive line couldn't open up enough room in the run game early and Ryan threw three interceptions, two of them on forced throws. He was victimized by Austin Hooper on the other. The defense was ready to play, but had a miscommunication on one touchdown and didn't come underneath the pick on Michael Thomas' 1-yard touchdown grab. The Falcons had some bizarre clock management right before the half. They were hurrying up when they had two timeouts. They should have used one to get in a better play and saved one for Bryant. Quinn will also be second-guessed for declining a holding penalty that would have made it third-and-11 from the 34 instead of fourth-and-inches from the 24. The Saints picked up the first down. Even with the shaky coaching moves, the Falcons are in the thick of the playoff race with three games to play.