Tonight was a do-or-die proposition for the Atlanta Falcons. Despite the sloppy decision making from Matt Ryan, the Falcons endured a second-half push from the New Orleans Saints and secured their eighth win of the season, putting them in prime position to return to the postseason next month.
Here are five key takeaways from Atlanta’s 20-17 victory over the Saints.
The NFC South picture just got much more interesting
This game mirrored the entire season for the Falcons: they started slow. Don’t look now, but here come the defending NFC champions. Atlanta gutted out a huge home win tonight against the Saints to improve to 8-5 on the season, with three additional divisional games yet to play.
Atlanta closes the night a game behind the Saints in the standings, with a date in New Orleans on Christmas Eve. Atlanta will control its own destiny, as the team hopes to run the table and win the NFC South.
Saints beat themselves with sloppy play and self-destructive habits
Eleven penalties for 87 yards and an interception in the end zone within the final two minutes. If one were to craft a recipe for losing a tough divisional contest, this would be an excellent start.
The Falcons did everything in their power to hand the game over the Saints in the middle two quarters, with three Matt Ryan interceptions setting the table for a Saints win that would have pinned the Falcons down in the standings.
Instead, the defensive backfield was too grabby on Julio Jones and company, giving the Falcons nine first downs courtesy of fouls.
The value of rookie RB Alvin Kamara cannot be understated
The Saints were forced to get off of their gameplan early after a rough tackle from Deion Jones caught Kamara in the side of the helmet.
No player in all of football has been hotter than the rookie out of Tennessee in the last five weeks, and it’s now even easier to appreciate the value he brings to this offense. The Saints became stagnant offensively in the first half and struggled to move the football in general. Before the team’s final drive, the Saints had less than 300 yards of offense on the night.
The 50 rushing yards from scrimmage logged by the Saints is also the team’s worst mark of the season and is the first time since Week 4 (October 1st, 2017) that the team didn’t surpass 100 yards rushing.
Kamara is the key cog in this Saints offense. If the team is without him for an extended period of time, the pathway to a potential first-round bye and a division championship become significantly more complicated.
Deion Jones’ strong season finally gets some limelight with a key play in Primetime
With thirteen total tackles and the game-winning interception, Jones was all over the screen. But his play was accentuated in more ways than one throughout this contest. First, his speed on the second level is paralleled by few, if any, of his contemporaries at the middle linebacker position.
The Saints drew up a nifty swing pass to WR Willie Snead inside the red zone on a key down, but Jones was able to utilize his burst and acceleration to chase down the receiver working into the boundary and prevent what would have been an easy first down.
Jones has been a defensive MVP for this team in each of the last two seasons, his play was a vital piece of the playoff run last year and will be a key factor in the Falcons shutting down each of their division rivals throughout the final three games.
Round 1 of the Julio Jones/Marshon Lattimore battle goes to Julio, by split decision
This showdown was easily the most fun one-on-one matchup of the night. The Saints were intent on trying to remove Jones from the game by having their star rookie shadow him throughout the game. For long stretches, the plot worked. Lattimore snagged an interception late in the first half to keep any potential points off the board for Atlanta, and his physicality at the line of scrimmage held up well against one of the best in the business.
But in the end, Atlanta was able to free Jones up with in-breaking routes against zone coverage, and his size got the better of Lattimore in press later in the game, drawing a key penalty to extend a drive.
The battles between these two in the coming years will be must-see TV and Round 1 did not disappoint on Thursday night.