ATLANTA — A swarm of bright red submerged Deion Jones as he held the ball tightly in the end zone.
Jones intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone with 1 minute, 25 seconds to play, capping a stellar defensive effort against a potent Saints offense in what no doubt was the biggest Falcons’ victory of the season, a 20-17 triumph over their biggest rival and the NFC South leaders.
Now 8-5, the Falcons can continue the playoff conversation. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Falcons’ chances to make the postseason increased from 36 percent to 52 percent with the win. Had they lost, those chances would have dropped to 19 percent.
Most figured the offense would be what guided the Falcons to victory, if anything. But reigning MVP Matt Ryan struggled miserably, throwing three interceptions, two of which appeared to be solely on him. Penalties were a factor again on offense. And there was a questionable declined penalty late by Falcons coach Dan Quinn that allowed the Saints to convert a fourth-and-1 and keep a potentially game-winning drive alive.
Then Jones, the New Orleans native who grew up rooting for the Saints, stepped in and stole the show. Literally.
It was Brees’ first red-zone interception of the season and just Atlanta’s fourth overall. And the Falcons limited the Saints to 3-of-10 on third down, part of the reason a team that entered Thursday scoring 29.4 points per game managed only 17.
True, the Falcons benefited on offense from a slew of New Orleans penalties that resulted in first downs. But no matter how they got it done, it was an important victory. Touchdowns by Devonta Freeman and Mohamed Sanu, along with two field goals by Matt Bryant — who reached 1,000 points with the Falcons — helped secure the victory.
Now the Falcons — still seventh in the playoff picture, right behind the Carolina Panthers (8-4) — have to build off the win, no matter how ugly it was. They have consecutive road games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans before finishing the season at home against the Panthers. The postseason is within reach … if the Falcons handle their business.
The fact that Jones and the defense are stepping up the right time is a positive sign that could lead right to a postseason berth.