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Deion Jones' INT keeps Atlanta Falcons in playoff hunt

Deion Jones intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone, thwarting a potential Saints game-winning drive and preserving a 20-17 victory for the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) over New Orleans (9-4). Here's what we learned in the exciting kickoff to Week 14's action:

  1. Atlanta's playoff hopesfluctuated with every Matt Ryan interception counterbalanced by a plague of penalties and injuries incurred by New Orleans in a game of sweeping momentum swings. With the season on the brink, Dan Quinn seemed doomed to days of second-guessing after declining a holding penalty that would have placed the Saints in a third-and-11 pickle on the cusp of field-goal range. Faced instead with a fourth-and-1 at the 24-yard line, Sean Payton put the game in his quarterback's hands, dialing up a successful Drew Brees sneak. Jones went on to save his head coach -- and his team's season -- in the red zone, flashing dynamic athleticism over a two-play sequence that will send the Falcons flying into next week's battle with the Buccaneers. After snuffing out a Willie Snead catch-and-run with extraordinary closing speed, Jones leaped high in the air to snare a Brees pass intended for tight end Josh Hill.
  1. The Saints could have used a waiting room for their sideline injury tent. Literally lining up to get examined by medical personnel, they are going to need the extra few days of rest in advance of next week's home bout with the Jets. Alvin Kamara went down with a concussion at the tail end of an opening drive dominated by the sensational rookie's four touches. His absence severely handcuffed a New Orleans offense that discovered screen passes to tight ends and quick-hitters to third and fourth receivers don't have quite the same punch. The problems weren't 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 go down with injuries of their own. With a handful of key defenders out and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore sucking oxygen on the sideline, Matt Ryan took full advantage with the game on the line, leading an eight-play field-goal drive that stood as the game-winner.
  1. Since Payton and Brees landed in New Orleans just over a decade ago, this underrated rivalry has been defined by high-octane offenses in memorable clashes that tend to come down to the last possession. With two matchups in a three-week span this month, the talented young defenses are taking center stage. Buoyed by Lattimore's physical approach to covering Julio Jones, the Saints' aggressive secondary picked Ryan three times to close out the first half and open the second. Minus Kamara's playmaking ability, on the other hand, the offense managed season lows in points (17), total yards (306) and rushing yards (50) against a stingy Falcons defense that afforded Ryan every opportunity to salvage that three-interception performance with a clutch fourth quarter.
  1. How impressive was Atlanta's defense? Twice this season Ryan has emerged victorious despite throwing a trio of interceptions. Outside of those outliers, the other 20 instances of a quarterback tossing three picks have resulted in losses. Just as NBC's Cris Collinsworth was explaining that only two of Ryan's 10 interceptions have been the quarterback's fault this season, the 2016 MVP unfurled his 11th on an underthrown jumpball to Jones in the corner of the end zone.

Even if Ryan managed to salvage the win, it's no secret that the league's 14th-ranked offense pales in comparison to last season's historically great attack. What's the difference? Under creative play-caller Kyle Shanahan last year, Ryan played like a fast-breaking point guard with unmatched court vision, spreading the wealth to wide open receivers and running backs while hitting bullseyes downfield. Under Steve Sarkisian this year, the multi-purpose running backs and speed demon Taylor Gabriel are afterthoughts and Ryan is too often forced to squeeze the ball into tight windows. To the surprise of no one, Ryan -- like most quarterbacks -- is a lot more effective when the play-caller finds a way to scheme defined open windows.

  1. Putting the Saints' offense on his back, Michael Thomas hauled in a season-high 10 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. The second-year wideout now ranks second only to Antonio Brown with 85 receptions. A legitimate No. 1 receiver as a chain-mover and red-zone threat in a run-dominant attack, Thomas is on pace for 1,220 yards on 105 catches. How does that production compare to counterpart Julio Jones? Although the four-time Pro Bowler's season has lacked consistency, Jones' five receptions for 98 yards leave him on pace for a sterling 90/1,428/4 slash line.
  1. The rematch between these two NFC South postseason contenders is just two weeks away. Gregg Rosenthal broke down the playoff implications of Thursday night's thriller, pointing out that the No. 1 seed might be a pipe dream for New Orleans at this point. Atlanta's last-minute victory also caused collateral damage to the three-pack of 6-6 outfits (Packers, Cowboys and Lions) hoping to see the Falcons, Seahawks or Panthers fall by the wayside.
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