Deion Jones intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone, frustrating a possible Saints winning play and retaining a 20-17 victory for the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) over New Orleans (9-4). This is what we learned in the exciting start of the Week 14 action:
1. The hopes of the Atlanta playoffs fluctuated with every interception by Matt Ryan counteracted by a plague of penalties and injuries incurred by New Orleans in a game of big momentum swings. With season on the edge of the abyss, Dan Quinn seemed doomed to days of doubt after rejecting a possession penalty that would have placed the Saints in a third and 1
2. The Saints could have used a waiting room for their side injury store. In literal line to be examined by the medical staff, they will need the extra days of rest before the home fight next week with the Jets. Alvin Kamara fell with a concussion in the tail of an opening drive dominated by the sensational touches of four rookies. His absence severely handcuffed a New Orleans offense that discovered screen passes to tight ends and quick hits for third and fourth receivers that do not have the same hit. The problems were not limited to that side of the ball. The defense saw defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata, linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro suffer injuries of their own. With a handful of key defenders out and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore breathing oxygen into the sideline, Matt Ryan made the most of the game on the line, leading a series of eight field goal plays as the winner of the game.
3. Since Payton and Brees landed in New Orleans more than a decade ago, this underestimated rivalry has been defined by high-octane offenses in memorable clashes that tend to be reduced to the last possession. With two clashes over a three-week span this month, talented young defenders are taking center stage. Driven by Lattimore's physical focus to cover Julio Jones, the Saints' aggressive secondary chose Ryan three times to close the first half and open the second half. Minus Kamara's ability to play, on the other hand, the offense handled season-lows in points (17), total yards (306) and rushing yards (50) against a stinging Falcons defense that gave Ryan every opportunity to save that performance from three interceptions with a fourth quarter clutch.
4. How impressive was the Atlanta defense? Twice this season, Ryan emerged victorious despite launching a trio of interceptions. Outside of these outliers, the other 20 instances of a quarterback throwing three selections have resulted in losses . Just when NBC's Cris Collinsworth explained that only two of Ryan's 10 interceptions were the quarterback's fault this season, the 2016 MVP deployed his 11th in a downhill pass to Jones in the corner of the end zone.
Even if Ryan managed to save the victory, it's no secret that the league's 14th offense pales in comparison to last season's historically big attack. What is the difference? Under Kyle Shanahan, creative player, last year, Ryan played as a speedy point guard with unparalleled vision on the court, spreading wealth to wide receivers and runners as they hit the bullseyes on the field. Under Steve Sarkisian this year, the multipurpose runners and the speed demon Taylor Gabriel are last minute thoughts and Ryan is often forced to poke the ball in the tight windows. To no one's surprise, Ryan, like most field marshals, is much more effective when the caller finds a form of open-window scheme defined.
5. Putting the Saints' offense on his back, Michael Thomas caught 10 passes of the season with 117 yards and a touchdown. The second-year receiver now ranks second behind Antonio Brown with 85 receptions. A legitimate receiver n. 1 as a threat of a drive chain and red zone in a dominant attack, Thomas is on his way to 1,220 yards in 105 receptions. How does that production compare with its counterpart Julio Jones? Although the Pro Bowl season has lacked consistency on four occasions, Jones' five receptions for 98 yards leave him on the road for a cut line of 90/1428/4 pounds sterling.
6. The rematch between these two postseason contenders of the NFC South is only two weeks away. Gregg Rosenthal broke the playoff implications of Thursday night's thriller, noting that the No. 1 seed could be an impossible dream for New Orleans at this time. Atlanta's last-minute victory also caused collateral damage to the pack of three to six (Packers, Cowboys and Lions) in the hope of seeing the Falcons, Seahawks or Panthers fall on the road.