The Falcons were dead. They were dead when Matt Ryan threw. They were dead when the Saints converted that third interception to a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. They were dead when Drew Brees seemed to be in the process of leading a winning game campaign in the Falcons' territory.
They were dead all night. But what is dead may never die.
Somehow, despite a horrible offensive performance, the Falcons won a game they must win against the Saints on Thursday night, taking the ugly contest, 20-17. Ryan played as if he were trying to get a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, posting a 55.2 passer rating. The Falcons' defense allowed Brees to average 7.7 yards per attempt and Michael Thomas to accumulate 117 yards.
But the Falcons won. They won because Ryan threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Matt Bryant kicked a 52-yard field goal, Deion Jones eliminated Brees in the end zone and] that drew a flag (controversial) and gave the Falcons a first try that ended the game.
It was that kind of game, the kind of game in which a yellow flag was the favorite mode of transportation of the Falcons offensive. But the Falcons will not care much. By defeating the Saints, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, by the way, the Falcons are now 8-5 and are very much alive in the NFC playoff picture.
They are half a game away from the Seahawks and Panthers in the wild-card race. They will play with the Panthers one more time and even the Saints again, which means their hopes in the NFC South are not over either. With 9-4, the Saints are only half a game ahead of the Panthers (but they have the head-to-head playoff) and a game in the Falcons. Their week 16 meeting in New Orleans on Christmas Eve could end up deciding the fate of the NFC South.
The Falcons are looking for the Saints.
A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were 7-5 and a late occurrence in the Super Bowl conversation. But they found out, they won their last four games of the regular season, and they went to the Super Bowl until they squandered a 28-3 lead against the Patriots. This year, the Falcons have a record of 8-5 and, although Thursday night will not inspire much confidence in their ability to make another pass in January, give them credit for finding a way to win and most importantly, find a way to close an opponent with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
They did it.
Despair is an incredible drug in the NFL, and the Falcons are piloting it. How far will it take them? That part remains to be seen. But they are alive. And really, that's all that matters at this time of the season.
Read on to get six information points on Thursday night.
1. A Neglected Adventure
We were promised points in a game with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Mark Ingram, Devonta Freeman, Alvin Kamara, Tevin Coleman, Michael Thomas and Julio Jones. But we have a game 20-17 full of mistakes.
The two teams combined to go 3 out of 7 in the red zone. The famous Saints running attack accumulated 50 yards. Ryan pitched three selections. The Saints had 11 penalties for 87 yards. No team can get away from this game feeling that they played particularly well.
The debacle we witnessed at the end of the first half was possibly the worst football of the season. Both teams had to score, but made mistakes in handling their watches and games using a combination of qualities of Andy Reid-ish and Chargers-ish.
With the game tied at 10, the Falcons began to assemble a unit that looked like it would go to finish, at least, with a field goal. They had two dead-ends in their pocket and, with 27 seconds remaining, Ryan hit Taylor Gabriel for a 10-yard pass that took the Falcons to the 42-yard Saints. Instead of taking a timeout, they allowed the clock to dial 14 seconds until officers stopped the game to review the capture. On the next play, after the catch was sustained, Ryan threw a terrible interception of Bortles-esque to Marshon Lattimore, giving the Saints their own chance to take the lead at halftime.
The Saints responded by kicking a field goal in an illegal formation, which the officials immediately scored. The penalty annulled the field goal and removed the three points from the board. To make matters worse, the flag really finished half.
This is how the game came into halftime knotted at 10-10: a brutal sequence failed by both teams.
2. The Falcons offense: It's not great, but it's good enough
The Falcons kept going in the second half. To start the third quarter, Ryan launched another selection. This was not his fault. Everything depended on Austin Hooper to turn a secure ending into a strange interception.
The Saints charged with a go-ahead touchdown: a one-yard shot from Brees to Thomas.
The Falcons should have responded with a tie touchdown or at least one field goal. Instead, they responded with a heinous interception in the end zone.
What the hell did Ryan see in this play?
That was Ryan's third selection of the game. Note:
Ryan ended up atoning for his sins, however, with a pass. With just 10 minutes to go, with the Falcons losing by seven points, Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu to score a touchdown on third down.
Even Ryan's "urge to win games" was not worthy of recognition. He traveled 38 yards on eight plays and finished with a long field goal.
The Falcons did not win because of Ryan. They won despite their horrible game. He finished 15-for-27 for 221 yards, a touchdown, three interceptions and a 55.2 passer rating. Interestingly, Ryan now has two games of three interceptions this season and the Falcons have won both games.
This section has presented a ton of unpleasant moments for the Falcons offense, so at least let's finish with something positive: Julio Jones is still very good! He finished with 98 yards in five receptions.
The disadvantage: he only caught five of his 11 targets.
3. Saints lose Kamara
The Saints are one of the best teams in football because of their historically dominant runner duo, which consists of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The duo entered on Thursday with 2,397 yards from the scrimmage and 20 touchdowns on the ground.
The Saints had only two for a series, since Kamara was forced to leave the game after receiving a helmet hit helmet. He immediately went into the background to see if there was a concussion in the medical tent. Then he went to the locker room. At halftime, he was discarded for the rest of the game with a concussion.
Although he barely played, he still managed to impress in his limited action. On the second scrimmage play, the Falcons simply decided not to cover Kamara, who converted a wide catch into a 23-yard gain. He collected 27 yards in four touches before leaving.
The Falcons did not play particularly well in this game, so it's worth wondering how they would have fared if Kamara had been healthy, because Kamara is a game changer. More importantly, it's worth wondering how Kamara will recover in the next week. The Saints are a good football team and have a lot of quality players on both sides of the ball, but they need their defensive field healthy to be a contender.
Ingram, by the way, finished with 49 yards rushing on 12 carries, but he added 43 receiving yards.
4. Brees hesitates late
For much of this season, the Saints have not needed Brees to be their savior. They have been able to rely on a dominant ground assault and a completely renewed defense, while Brees has simply guided the offensive.
Finally, on Thursday night, the Saints needed Brees. And he came so close to saving them before he got short.
He took a terrible sack in a critical third attempt in the fourth quarter.
And then he made the wrong throw at the wrong time in a three-point game to seal the fate of the Saints.
Remember: The Saints did not absolutely need a touchdown. A field goal would have extended the game. Instead, Brees threw the game.
It's not that Brees necessarily played badly. His numbers look really good: 26 of 35 for 271 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 103.4 passer rating. It's just that the Saints needed more of him with Kamara and the rest of the offense without playing to the fullest.
Failed in that sense.
5. Michael Thomas is really very good
Very fast, although the Saints lost, we give credit to one of his players. Catcher Michael Thomas dominated the Falcons' secondary, hauling 10 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown.
At one point during the game, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said something about how (and I'm paraphrasing here) Thomas just figured out how to play the game. He is not wrong. Thomas is very funny to watch because his routes are so smooth, he seems to understand how to attack each coverage, and he just drops passes.
This was my favorite moment of your big night:
Make sure you watch the replay, because you'll see how smooth Thomas's route was.
6. Whats Next?
In the final stretch!
The Saints have two very winning games that remain in their calendar because they play the Jets and Buccaneers in weeks 15 and 17. But they also have to play the Falcons again in week 16, which could decide the division. The Saints control their own destiny in the playoffs, so they can feel good about it. But they have to be disappointed to blow the opportunity to cement their status at the top of the NFC South and in the process to eliminate the Falcons. The situation in the NFC South is suddenly cloudy.
As for the Falcons, they are alive, but they face a difficult stretch to close the year with games against the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers. On the other hand, by playing with two other teams in the pursuit of the playoffs, they can feel good about controlling their own destiny. To do that against that schedule, however, they will need to clean up their act in the last three weeks.