The Falcons were dead. They were dead when Matt Ryan threw . They were dead when the Saints turned that third interception into a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. They were dead when Drew Brees appeared to be in the process of leading a game-winning drive deep into Falcons territory.
They were dead all night long. But what is dead may never die.
Somehow, despite an awful offensive performance, the Falcons won a must-win game against the Saints on Thursday night, taking the ugly contest, 20-17. Ryan played like he was trying to milk 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 rack up 117 yards.
But the Falcons won. They won because Ryan threw a tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Matt Bryant kicked a go-ahead 52-yard field goal, Deion Jones picked off Brees in the end zone, and , which drew a (controversial) flag and handed the Falcons a first down that ended the game.
It was that kind of game -- the kind of game in which a yellow flag was the Falcons offense's favorite mode of transportation. But the Falcons won't care much. By beating the Saints -- a legitimate Super Bowl contender, by the way -- the Falcons are now 8-5 and very much alive in the NFC playoff picture.
They're only half a game back of the Seahawks and Panthers in the wild-card race. They get to play the Panthers one more time and even the Saints again, which means their hopes in the NFC South aren't over either. At 9-4, the Saints are only half a game ahead of the Panthers (but they do own the head-to-head tiebreaker) and a game up on Falcons. Their Week 16 meeting in New Orleans on Christmas Eve could end up deciding the fate of the NFC South.
The Falcons are gunning for the Saints.
A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were 7-5 and an afterthought in the Super Bowl conversation. But they figured it out, won their final four games of the regular season, and went on a Super Bowl run until they blew a 28-3 lead to the Patriots. This year, the Falcons are 8-5 and while Thursday night won't inspire much confidence in their ability to make another deep run into January, let's give them credit for finding a way to win and most importantly, finding a way to close out an opponent with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
They did it.
Desperation is a helluva drug in the NFL, and the Falcons are riding it. How far will it take them? That part still remains to be seen. But they're alive. And really, that's all that matters at this point in the season.
Read on for six takeaways from Thursday night.
1. A sloppy affair
We were promised points from a game featuring Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Mark Ingram, Devonta Freeman, Alvin Kamara, Tevin Coleman, Michael Thomas, and Julio Jones. But we got a 20-17 game filled with mistakes.
The two teams combined to go 3 of 7 in the red zone. The Saints' famed rushing attack racked up 50 yards. Ryan threw three picks. The Saints had 11 penalties for 87 yards. Neither team can walk away from this game feeling like they played particularly well.
The debacle that we witnessed at the end of the first half was arguably the worst football of the season. Both teams should've scored, but bungled their clock and game management using a combination of Andy Reid-ish and Chargers-ish qualities.
With the game tied at 10, the Falcons began mounting a drive that looked like it was going to end, at the very least, with a field goal. They had two timeouts sitting in their pocket and with 27 seconds remaining, Ryan hit Taylor Gabriel for a 10-yard pass that brought the Falcons to the Saints' 42-yard line. Instead of taking a timeout, they let the clock tick down all way to 14 seconds until the officials stopped the game to review the catch. On the next play -- after the catch was upheld -- Ryan threw an awful Bortles-esque interception to Marshon Lattimore, giving the Saints their own chance to take the lead into halftime.
The Saints responded by kicking a field goal in an illegal formation, which the officials immediately flagged. The penalty negated the field goal and took the three points off the board. To make matters worse, the flag actually ended the half.
That's how the game entered halftime knotted up at 10-10: a brutal botched sequence by both teams.
2. Falcons offense: Not great, but good enough
The Falcons kept bumbling around in the second half. To begin the third quarter, Ryan threw another pick. This one wasn't his fault. It was entirely on Austin Hooper for turning a sure completion into a strange interception.
The Saints cashed in with a go-ahead touchdown -- a one-yard strike from Brees to Thomas.
The Falcons should've responded with a tying touchdown or at the very least a field goal. Instead, they responded with an atrocious interception in the end zone.
What in the heck did Ryan see on this play?
That was Ryan's third pick of the game. Of note:
Tonight is Matt Ryan's 8th game with 3+ interceptions since 2012. The only QB with more 3+ INT games since 2012 is Eli Manning (10 games).— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 8, 2017
Ryan ended up atoning for his sins, though, with one pass. With roughly 10 minutes to go in the game, with the Falcons trailing by seven points, Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a tying touchdown on third down.
Even Ryan's "game-winning drive" wasn't worthy of recognition. It traveled 38 yards on eight plays and ended with a lengthy field goal.
The Falcons did not win because of Ryan. They won despite his awful play. He finished 15 of 27 for 221 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and a 55.2 passer rating. Strangely enough, Ryan now has two three-interception games this season and the Falcons have won both of those games.
This section has featured a ton of ugly moments for the Falcons' offense, so let's at least end on something positive: Julio Jones is still really dang good! He finished with 98 yards on five catches.
The downside: 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 running back duo, which is composed of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The duo entered Thursday with 2,397 yards from scrimmage and 20 rushing and receiving touchdowns.
The Saints only had both of them for one series, as Kamara was forced to leave the game after taking helmet-to-helmet hit. He immediately went to the sidelines to get checked for a concussion in the medical tent. He then headed to the locker room. At halftime, he was ruled out for the remainder of the game with a concussion.
Even though he hardly played, he still managed to make an impression in his limited action. On the second play from scrimmage, the Falcons simply decided to not cover Kamara, who turned a wide-open catch into a 23-yard gain. He picked up 27 yards on four touches before departing.
The Falcons didn't play particularly well in this game, so it's worth wondering how they would've fared if Kamara had been healthy, because Kamara is a game-changer. More importantly, it's worth wondering how Kamara will recover in the week ahead. The Saints are a good football team and feature a ton of quality players on both sides of the ball, but they need their backfield to be healthy to be a contender.
Ingram, by the way, finished with 49 rushing yards on 12 carries, but he did add 43 receiving yards.
4. Brees falters late
For so much of this season, the Saints haven't needed Brees to be their savior. They've been able to lean on a dominant ground assault and a completely revamped defense while Brees has simply guided the offense along.
Finally, on Thursday night, the Saints needed Brees. And he came oh so close to saving them before coming up just short.
He took an awful sack on a critical third down in the fourth quarter.
And then he made the wrong throw at the wrong time in a three-point game to seal the Saints' fate.
Remember: The Saints didn't absolutely need a touchdown. A field goal would've extended the game. Instead, Brees threw the game away.
It's not that Brees necessarily played poorly. His numbers actually look 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 from him with Kamara out and the rest of the offense not playing up to its peak.
He failed in that regard.
5. Michael Thomas is really damn good
Real quick, even though the Saints lost, let's give one of their players a ton of credit. Receiver Michael Thomas dominated the Falcons' secondary, hauling in 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 has just figured out how to play the game. He's not wrong. Thomas is so dang fun to watch because his routes are so smooth, he seems to understand how to attack every coverage, and he hardly drops passes.
This was my favorite moment from his huge night:
Make sure you watch the replay, because you'll see how smooth Thomas' route was.
6. What's next?
Onto the home stretch!
The Saints have two very winnable games remaining on their schedule 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 playoff fate, so they can feel good about that. But they've got to be disappointed about blowing a chance to cement their status atop the NFC South and in the process eliminate the Falcons. The situation in the NFC South is suddenly cloudy.
As for the Falcons, they're alive, but they face a tough stretch to close the year with games against the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers. On the other hand, by playing two other teams in the playoff hunt, they can feel good about controlling their own destiny. To do that against that schedule, though, they'll need to clean up their act in the final three weeks.