Last year, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons entered Week 14 at 7–5 thanks to some strange losses on their record. They’d rattle off four straight wins, earn a first-round bye and win two home playoff games.
This season, these Falcons entered Week 14 at 7-5 thanks to some strange losses on their record. And as they reached the quarter-pole of the season to start this year’s comeback, they had to top the best team in the division—and possibly the conference.
If Atlanta makes the playoffs this year, it will point to Thursday night’s 20-17 win against New Orleans as the turning point.
The win keeps the Falcons (8-5) in the thick of the wild-card hunt while helping their chances at a second straight NFC South title, which will be contingent upon Atlanta topping the Saints (9-4) again in New Orleans in two weeks. And the Falcons were able to win despite the reigning MVP looking anything like an MVP.
One by one, Matt Ryan’s interceptions 1) took a potential three points off the board, 2) put the Saints in position to score a touchdown and 3) took at least a field goal and maybe a touchdown off the board for Atlanta.
The first interception was not simply a failure on Ryan’s part. Head coach Dan Quinn decided against calling one of his two remaining timeouts after Taylor Gabriel was tackled at the New Orleans 42-yard line with 27 seconds left. After a late review by officials, the Falcons were finally able to snap the ball with 14 seconds and Ryan looked for Julio Jones. Rookie corner Marshon Lattimore had the clamps on Jones on that play after getting burned on a drag route earlier in the game that went for 38 yards. His press coverage resulted in Ryan throwing right to the Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner, whose return got the Saints into field-goal range.
“Oh it’s going to come though,” Lattimore told me last month when I asked him if he could add to his two-pick total if quarterbacks weren’t throwing his way often. “I can’t get complacent and say, oh they’re not throwing my way. Or get lazy in my technique. I still have to go out there like I have been.”
The Falcons dodged a bullet at the end of the half when Josh LeRibeus lined up incorrectly on the field goal and went into half tied at 10. But on Ryan’s first pass of the second half, the ball hit Austin Hooper in the chest, bounced off the tight end and landed into the hands of Chris Banjo before he went to the ground. Four plays later, Drew Brees hit Michael Thomas for a one-yard touchdown.
As NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth correctly pointed out, Ryan has had a season full of fluke interceptions. To Collinsworth, eight of Ryan’s then-10 interceptions were “bizarro.” Be that as it may, those have just been the Falcons’ breaks this season. They opened the season with a close win in Chicago, consecutive strange home losses to Buffalo and Miami, and a loss in Carolina marked by a Julio Jones dropped touchdown. Eventually, you are what your record says you are.
But the most inexcusable of the trio of interceptions came on the ensuing drive. Down 17-10, the Falcons mounted a drive that had them threatening to tie the game again. Ryan, dancing in the pocket inside the 10-yard line, threw a terrible pass to Jones in the end zone that was intercepted by Marcus Williams, taking at least three points off the board.
Ryan finally settled down by the fourth quarter, getting his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season when he put together a nice 69-yard touchdown drive to knot the game at 17. He followed that with a 38-yard drive that ended in the game-winning field goal. But it would be unfair to analyze this Falcons win and not mention the Saints were without Rookie of the Year-to-be Alvin Kamara for most of the game due to a concussion. Or that Quinn bungled a late decision, opting not to accept a holding penalty that instead gave the Saints a fourth-and-short that they easily converted with a quarterback sneak. Still, Atlanta’s defense was able to hold one of the league’s best offenses to their lowest output of the season.
Just like last season, the Falcons picked up a Week 14 win that gets them to 8-5 and in control of their postseason hopes just as Seattle and Green Bay appear to be hitting their stride in the wild-card race. If the Falcons are playing in January, this Thursday night win in December will have a lot to do with it.