Defense bails out Ryan, Falcons - and what was Sean Payton thinking?

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones intercepts New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' pass intended for tight end Josh Hill (left) in the end zone to hold on to a 20-17 victory on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones intercepts New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' pass intended for tight end Josh Hill (left) in the end zone to hold on to a 20-17 victory on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Matt Ryan was being escorted out of the locker room to a television interview shortly after the game when he walked past me.

“Are you going to the interview room?” I asked.

“Not today,” he joked.

But he showed up. Consider it one of those postgame, three-interception, near-disasters of an evening that could be laughed off when it was over. The Falcons won a game, somehow, some way, and it probably saved their season, much to the chagrin of the Saints' possibly chemically imbalanced coach, Sean Payton.

The Falcons rallied to beat New Orleans 20-17. The victory was secured when when linebacker Deion Jones – the New Orleans native who seems to save his best games for the Saints – intercepted a Drew Brees pass in the end zone with 1:25 remaining. Jones leaped so high for the ball in front of tight end Josh Hill that he landed on his back and head after his long descent and crash to the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I tried to make a play on the ball, but then I knew it was a long way down,” said Jones, who also had a 90-yard interception return against New Orleans last season. “Then I opened up my eyes and all my brothers were standing there.”

Your eyes were closed?

“Once I had the ball, I didn’t want to see myself fall.”

There are so many things to unwrap about this game. But start with this: The Falcons aren’t dead. They’re 8-5, one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South with three to go. A loss would’ve buried them in the division and might have smothered their playoff hopes.

Strangely, it wasn their formerly celebrated offense that rescued the season (although going 7-for-12 on third down was a step forward from last week's 1-for-10 against Minnesota). Ryan led two scoring drives late to rally for the win. But he also threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions and came close to a couple of more. (In his defense, the second interception was on tight end Austin Hooper, who failed to secure a pass thrown at his chest.)

The defense bailed out Ryan. It allowed only one score off those three turnovers – that on a short field. Take that away, and the Saints scored only 10 points.

So Ryan’s state of mind was fine. Payton’s? Notsomuch.

To say he went bonkers would be an insult to residents of some asylums. With the Falcons trailing 17-10 and driving in the fourth quarter, running back Devonta Freeman was pushed out of bounds at the Saints’ 33. A TV camera caught Payton, standing nearby, giving Freeman the choke sign.

You didn’t have to be an expert lip-reader to make out, “You choked. You choked.”

I’m going to assume this was a Super Bowl reference, because, duh.

Freeman was stunned at the time. But he laughed about it later. Shortly after the game, he tweeted: “AINTS lol.” (The tweet was later deleted.)

Freeman said of Payton’s choke sign: “I saw it. That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from. He’s a good competitor, so the competin’ probably came out. But you don’t let that bother you.”

Payton on the choke sign: “I don’t remember that.”

Way to own it.

What followed: Ryan completed a 19-yard pass to Julio Jones. Then he threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu to tie the score at 17-17. A Matt Bryant 52-yard field goal gave the Falcons the lead.

On the Saints’ ensuing drive, Brees threw an incomplete pass on third-and-1 from the Falcons’ 24. They were penalized for holding. Quinn chose to decline it, setting up fourth down, rather than push the Saints back to the 34 for third-and-11. Ooops.

“I thought they were going to kick it,” he said. “You don’t get those do-overs.”

The Saints passed on the field-goal attempt, and Brees and the offense returned to the field.

Did Quinn immediately second-guess himself?

“Yes. One hundred percent.”

Brees dove for the first down. A collapse seemed inevitable. The Saints drove to the Falcons’ 11. But Brees’ second-down pass was picked off by Jones.

Ryan, standing on the sideline, beamed. “I had a good angle of it,” he said. “Deion’s a special player.”

So special, he reduced a three-interception night to an afterthought.

Nothing this Falcons’ season comes easy. They had a 10-3 lead early Thursday. Saints running back Alvin Kamara left the game with a concussion, but the Falcons still found a way to self-destruct.  This season has been like one giant replay of a Road Runner cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote has a brilliant plan involving Acme dynamite but inadvertently wires the fuse to his big toe.

The Acme dynamite in this game was three consecutive interceptions:

• Interception 1: Ryan underthrew Jones badly near the end of the first half, and the pass was intercepted by Marshon Lattimore, ending a potential scoring drive. Ryan: “I have to throw that football away.”

• Interception 2: On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, a pass to Hooper was on target, but fell into the arms by Chris Banjo at the Falcons’ 29 as he was making a tackle on Hooper, setting up a New Orleans touchdown.

• Interception 3: A pass to a well-covered (possibly interfered with) Jones in the end zone was picked off by Marcus Williams, killing a red-zone drive. Ryan: “I thought we were going to get a call, but I have to be better than that.”

It hasn’t been his best season. But at 8-5, with games remaining against Tampa Bay, the Saints and Carolina, all possibilities remain. Just don’t stop to wonder how they got here.

EARLIER: Georgia finally gets a seat at the table after long drought.

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