The Atlanta Falcons (8-5) intensified their pursuit of the NFC South crown with a 20-17 home win over the New Orleans Saints (9-4) on Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after Deion Jones intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone with 1:25 remaining in regulation.
The Saints looked as though they'd have one final shot to avenge Brees' mistake, but a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty courtesy of Sean Payton with the Falcons facing a would-be third down ended New Orleans' night for good.
Payton explained why he was assessed the 15-yard flag in the game's waning seconds, via NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Thanks to Jones' heroics and Payton's gaffe, the Falcons are now one game back of the Saints in the division standings. The same is true of the Carolina Panthers, who will have a chance to tie New Orleans in the win column when they host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
While the Saints appeared primed to take the lead late or at least tie the game after marching 69 yards in nine plays down to the Atlanta 11-yard line, Brees tried to force a ball up the seam to tight end Josh Hill that was snatched out of midair by Jones, as the NFL chronicled on Twitter:
The interception represented Brees' sixth of the season, and it was a rather ironic twist of fate considering the Falcons were plagued by turnovers from Matt Ryan all night long.
Although Ryan was able to walk away with the win, he went 15-of-27 for 221 yards and one touchdown while tossing three interceptions.
What's more, the three interceptions came in the span of four pass attempts bridging the end of the first half and the opening stages of the third quarter.
Needless to say, the flurry of turnovers didn't paint a pretty picture, as observers across Twitter noted:
However, Ryan's carelessness in the pocket didn't cost the Falcons because the Saints were only able to convert one of the Falcons' turnovers—Ryan's first pick of the second half—into points when Brees hit Michael Thomas for a one-yard score to take a 17-10 lead:
That score was one of the few bright spots for a Saints offense that was plagued by inefficiencies in the running game.
Not only was Mark Ingram limited to 12 carries for 49 yards, but rookie sensation Alvin Kamara also was forced to leave the game in the first quarter after he was diagnosed with a concussion.
The Saints subsequently became one-dimensional, and Atlanta's secondary did well to prevent big seam-stretching plays downfield that could have helped New Orleans break things open.
The Falcons, who have won four of their last five games, are now in prime position to shake up the NFC South if they can run the table the rest of the month with games left against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Dec. 18), Saints (Dec. 24) and Carolina Panthers (Dec. 31).
The Saints will have the same goal in mind as they prepare for a closing stretch that features games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets in addition to the crucial Week 16 clash with Atlanta back in the Big Easy.