The Falcons’ playoff hopes are alive.
They somehow, someway beat the Saints 20-17 in one of the most entertaining — and crazy — games of the season.
Both quarterbacks — two of the best in the NFL — committed “what-were-you-thinking” interceptions. Both coaches — both with NFC championships — made “what-were-you-thinking” decisions in the final two minutes.
The Saints fell to 9-4, now only a half game ahead of the Panthers (8-4) and one game in front of the Falcons (8-5). Atlanta has won four of its last five, while New Orleans has lost two of its past three.
The final two minutes of the first half and the final two minutes of second half were stunning.
At the end of the first half, Matt Ryan tried to hit Julio Jones on a pass from the Saints 42, and Marshon Lattimore picked it. The rookie corner nearly had a pick-six, but Jones made the tackle after a 33-yard return to the Atlanta 29.
With four seconds remaining, the Saints immediately lined up for a field goal. Wil Lutz‘s 47-yard field goal was good, but Josh LeRibeus was flagged for an illegal formation. The Saints guard lined up too far behind the line of scrimmage. Because time ran out, the teams headed to the locker room tied 10-10.
Saints coach Sean Payton gave officials an earful as they left the field.
The final two minutes of the second half might have been nuttier, if that’s possible.
The Saints, trailing by three points, reached the Atlanta 24 at the two-minute warning. Drew Brees threw an incompletion on third-and-one, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn inexplicably declined a holding penalty on Ryan Ramczyk. Instead of third-and-11 from the Atlanta 34, the Saints faced fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 24 and Brees easily picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak.
The Saints got to the Atlanta 11, with Ted Ginn holding onto an 11-yard pass after being rocked by Ricardo Allen, before Brees tried to force a pass into Josh Hill, who was tightly covered in the end zone. Deion Jones intercepted it.
Payton, frustrated by officials not immediately recognizing his signal for a timeout, ran onto the field and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. It allowed the Falcons to line up in victory formation.
Here are five more things we learned during Thursday Night Football:
1. Ryan will not repeat as MVP.
Ryan won the award last season by throwing 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, with a league-leading 117.1 passer rating. He never threw more than one interception in a game in 2016.
On Thursday, Ryan had his second three-interception game of this season. He threw three picks in a four-attempt stretch with Lattimore, Marcus Williams and Chris Banjo picking him.
Ryan’s first pass of the second half was just bad luck as tight end Austin Hooper bobbled the pass and it landed in Banjo’s arms. But Ryan forced passes to Jones on the interceptions by Lattimore and Williams, with Williams’ pick in the end zone ending a scoring chance from the New Orleans 9.
Ryan now has thrown 11 interceptions this season.
He finished 15-of-27 for 221 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
2. The Saints missed Alvin Kamara.
The rookie running back has become a big part of their offense, entering the game with 606 rushing yards and 614 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. But he was injured on the eighth play from scrimmage, taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Deion Jones.
Kamara went into concussion protocol and did not return.
That left Mark Ingram to carry the load, and he was playing with a toe injury. Ingram, who entered with 922 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this season, gained 49 yards on 12 carries and caught four passes for 43 yards.
Kamara would have made a difference.
He was one of several Saints players who left the game with injuries. Guard Senio Kelemete (concussion) was among those who didn’t return.
3. This is not Rob Ryan’s defense.
New Orleans has not finished higher than 27th in total defense or 28th in scoring defense in three seasons. It entered Thursday’s game ranked 13th in total defense and ninth in scoring defense.
The Saints would have liked their chances had you told defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Payton that they would hold the Falcons to 20 points, Julio Jones to less than 100 yards and have three interceptions of Ryan.
The only negative for the New Orleans defense is it gave Atlanta nine first downs on penalties. The Falcons had six rushing first downs and 11 passing first downs.
4. The Falcons need to ride Freeman.
Freeman, who missed most of one game and two full games with a concussion, returned Sunday to rush for 74 yards on 12 carries in the loss to the Vikings. He had 24 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown against the Saints.
Atlanta, though, seems to forget about him for stretches in games. Remember the Super Bowl? Freeman had only five rushes for 4 yards in the second half and overtime as the Patriots rallied.
5. The NFC South is the best.
The Saints, Panthers and Falcons all deserve to make the playoffs. They are three good teams with three good quarterbacks and they have combined to win three of the past eight NFC championships, including the last two.
The Saints won the Super Bowl to end the 2009 season. The Panthers lost in the Super Bowl to end the 2015 season, and well, you know what the Falcons did last February.
The four NFC South teams are 29-21, including the combined 25-13 record of the top three teams.
Any of the three could win the division, so it’s going to be a race to the finish.
The Falcons and Saints play again in two weeks, and the Falcons and Panthers close out the season in Atlanta Dec. 31. The Saints and Panthers already have played twice, with New Orleans sweeping the season series.