by Scott Kacsmar
If you like important games between winning teams with franchise quarterbacks, then Thursday night had a great game for you on paper. If you like games with an excessive amount of injuries, cheap penalties, and head-scratching interceptions, then Thursday night had a great game for you in reality.
Atlanta (8-5) kept its playoff hopes alive with a 20-17 comeback win to raise its home record to 4-3 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. New Orleans (9-4) lost for only the fourth time this season, but all of the losses have been to playoff contenders where the Saints failed to score more than 20 points.
This loss may have been the most troubling yet since it diminishes New Orleans' odds of a first-round bye, and keeps the NFC South a tight three-team race with Carolina (8-4) and Atlanta.
The First Half
While this was the first time all season that the Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead, a lot of the damage was done before halftime, including a game-changing injury on the opening drive. This was really the first prime-time game for the team since star rookie Alvin Kamara has formed the game's most exciting backfield duo with Mark Ingram. As advertised, the first two plays from scrimmage were an Ingram run for 7 yards and a pass to Kamara for 23 yards. Unfortunately, Kamara's night was short-lived after he suffered a concussion on a (non-malicious) helmet-to-helmet hit by Deion Jones, who had one of the most impactful games you'll ever see from a linebacker. There wasn't even a flag on the play, which the Saints would have liked since the loss of yards brought up third-and-14. So Kamara didn't even finish the game's first drive, which ended with a field goal by the Saints.
In the second quarter, with the game tied 3-3, the Saints appeared to stop Atlanta on a third-and-11 after Matt Ryan threw an incompletion. However, Sheldon Rankins was penalized for a very weak roughing the passer penalty to extend the drive. Ryan later got away with a would-be interception that was dropped by Ken Crawley. On the drive that seemingly didn't want to succeed, the Falcons were using defensive tackle Dontari Poe and offensive tackle Tyler Sambrailo as eligible receivers, and Ryan even targeted Sambrailo in the end zone with the ball at the 1-yard line. Apparently that's a better option than just letting Julio Jones win a jump ball. That play failed, but then Devonta Freeman, who ran very hard all night, finished off the 90-yard march that consumed 8:28 off the clock with a touchdown run to take a 10-3 lead. New Orleans should have been able to stop that drive multiple times, but the touchdown was one big turning point.
Drew Brees did respond with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Tommylee Lewis, who showed fancy footwork near the sideline to tie the game with 1:53 left in the half.
Things took a really odd turn just before the half ended. The Falcons had some shoddy clock management with two timeouts left, but after calling one, Ryan came back with a terrible decision to force a pass to Jones, who was blanketed by rookie Marshon Lattimore. There was a lot of contact, but it was all within the legal 5-yard zone before the pass was thrown. That's definitely not the first time Ryan has forced a terrible pass to his left before halftime of a big game. At least this time, Jones was able to make the tackle of Lattimore at the Atlanta 29. New Orleans had four seconds, just enough time to try a field goal, but the kick was negated after a penalty for an illegal formation. Since that was a live ball foul, the half ended there with the Saints in disbelief.
The Third-Quarter Pick Parade
The first play from scrimmage in the third quarter was another Ryan interception. This time it was a fine throw to tight end Austin Hooper, who dropped the pass and saw it deflect to Chris Banjo for the pick. As I pointed out earlier this season, this has happened to Ryan at an alarming rate in 2017. He just may smash the record for tipped interceptions in a season in the game charting era.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 17, 2017
That allowed the Saints to start at the Atlanta 29, and Brees used a pick play to get a 1-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas for a 17-10 lead. Brees bobbled the snap a bit before recovering to make the throw.
Brees' counterpart was up to his own shenanigans in the red zone. Ryan forced another awful throw to Jones in the end zone, this one intercepted by Marcus Williams, giving Ryan three interceptions in three drives.
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) December 8, 2017
To that point, the Saints offense was managing the Kamara injury just fine. They had gained at least 29 yards on each of their five drives and scored 17 points. After that, however, they failed to produce the rest of the game. Given field position and time, 10 points was really the best outcome the Saints could have been expected to gain from Ryan's three picks, but they ended up with only the one touchdown. That botched field goal to end the half really hurt.
The Fourth-Quarter Finish
The officials weren't up for a night of swallowing their whistles, as four flags (three on New Orleans) were thrown on what became Atlanta's game-tying drive. With time to throw, Ryan found Mohamed Sanu for an 8-yard touchdown with 9:55 left to tie the game at 17. Brees took his second third-down sack of the half and Ryan soon had the ball back. One big third-and-7 conversion to Jones for 14 yards led to a 52-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, one of the game's best, and the Falcons led 20-17 with 3:49 left.
That was still plenty of time for Brees to win the game with a touchdown, and he got things started right with a 35-yard gain to Thomas, the longest play of the game for New Orleans. Unfortunately, the injuries kept coming all night for the Saints. The NFL gamebook mentions seven stoppages for injuries after the Kamara loss, and all seven players were Saints, including A.J. Klein, Trey Hendrickson, Senio Kelemete, and David Onyemata. Safety Kenny Vaccaro also left with a groin injury. New Orleans' final drive alone saw Thomas, Ingram, and Ted Ginn Jr. all shaken up at some point.
It was just one of those bad nights for New Orleans, and yet, the Saints were at the Atlanta 24 at the two-minute warning. Brees threw incomplete on a third-and-1, which was an interesting call given the Saints rank 13th in power runs and have the lowest rate of stuffed runs (13 percent) this year. The Saints were also penalized for holding on the play, but Atlanta coach Dan Quinn declined the penalty to bring up fourth-and-1. I'm not sure he would have declined it had he known that Sean Payton would have the guts to go for the first down on fourth-and-1.
I thought this was a great call since the Saints still had three timeouts, so getting the ball back with enough time was still probable if the play didn't work. Leaving Ryan, one of the best ever at late drives, almost two minutes seemed like a bad exchange for just getting a tie, so good on Payton. What I really loved is that he let Brees do the quarterback sneak, the most unstoppable short-yardage play in the game.
After an aggressive decision like that, the Saints had to go for the touchdown and win. What wasn't a good idea was the first call after reaching the 11-yard line. Willie Snead, who came into Week 14 with five catches for 63 yards this season, seemed to have a play designed specifically for him, and it was just a short throw that didn't gain anything. If being safe and making Atlanta burn another timeout was the idea, then Ingram should have gotten the carry after he returned to the game.
On second down, Brees made one of the more regrettable throws of his career. He forced a pass into the end zone for tight end Josh Hill, and Jones, who knocked Kamara out to start the night, knocked the Saints out to end the night with an athletic interception with 1:25 left. The following picture sums up the perplexing throw and nice catch pretty well.
Deion Jones is a linebacker pic.twitter.com/nvYJKbmhxa
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) December 8, 2017
With two timeouts left, it was still possible for the Saints to get the ball back. They almost did so in incredible fashion after Freeman had a clear fumble, but Atlanta was fortunate to recover. The Saints were still going to be in position for one more (low-probability) drive, but Payton blew that when he drew a 15-yard flag for barking at a referee after a frustrating night. It's a shame that his fourth-and-1 sneak call will get lost in the hoopla of the interception and his penalty, because that could have been one of those memorable moments that helped the Saints to a big win over a rival.
After the game, Brees had some strong words about the team's injuries resulting from the short week. "It's 100 percent a product of playing on Thursday night," Brees said. "Do you understand what guys' bodies go through in a game? And then to have to turn around four days later and to play? Look at the injury studies, they're off the charts. They're off the charts. So is this smart as it pertains to guys' health and safety? No, absolutely not."
(For what it's worth, the studies done by our own Zach Binney on Thursday injuries do not support what Brees said about the results being off the charts.)
Back to football, that interception by Brees was really off-the-charts bad in that spot. This was only the 10th time since 1994 that a player threw a red zone interception in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter with the game tied or down by 1 to 3 points. Some of these should be memorable to hardcore football fans, because it is such a rare event that it usually is a memorable finish.
|Quarterbacks: Red Zone Interception in Final 2:00 of Fourth Quarter, Tied or Down 1-3 Points (1994-2017)|
|Troy Aikman||DAL||PHI||11/3/1996||0:15||3||3||PHI 3||21-24||L 31-21||James Willis||Troy Vincent 90-yd TD
|Mark Brunell||JAC||TEN||9/26/1999||1:03||3||3||TEN 3||17-20||L 20-19||Samari Rolle||TEN: intentional safety to end game|
|Mitch Berger||MIN||at GB||11/6/2000||0:07||1||10||GB 15||20-20||L 26-20 OT||Tyrone Williams||Bad snap on FG; "He did what!?" in OT|
|Jeff Blake||BAL||at PIT||12/29/2002||0:18||1||10||PIT 11||31-34||L 34-31||Dewayne Washington||Week 17 finale|
|Daunte Culpepper||MIN||at CHI||12/14/2003||1:11||2||10||CHI 10||10-13||L 13-10||Charles Tillman||CHI ran out final 1:02 on clock|
|Jake Delhomme||CAR||at PHI||12/4/2006||0:28||1||7||PHI 7||24-27||L 27-24||Lito Sheppard||MNF|
|Brett Favre||MIN||at PIT||10/25/2009||1:15||2||3||PIT 19||17-20||L 27-17||Keyaron Fox||Tipped by RB Chester Taylor|
|Matt Ryan||ATL||at SF||12/23/2013||1:31||2||1||SF 10||24-27||L 34-24||NaVorro Bowman||Final game at Candlestick Park|
|Shaun Hill||STL||SD||11/23/2014||1:03||2||4||SD 4||24-27||L 27-24||Marcus Gilchrist||Jeff Fisher < Chargers BINGO|
|Drew Brees||NO||at ATL||12/7/2017||1:30||2||10||ATL 11||17-20||L 20-17||Deion Jones||ATL ran out final 1:25 on clock|
Interestingly enough, Brees now has nine career interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter with the game tied or his team down by 1 to 3 points. That is the highest total since 1994; the quarterbacks tied for second place with seven each are Ryan and Jon Kitna.
Thursday obviously wasn't a banner night for either Brees or Ryan, who improved to 4-5 when he throws at least three interceptions in a game. That's actually a really good record for that split. Joe Montana was also 4-5 in his career when he threw at least three picks.
Ryan's 27th fourth-quarter comeback win gives him the most in NFL history through a quarterback's first 10 seasons (Matthew Stafford has 26 in nine seasons). Ryan's 36th game-winning drive extends his record for a quarterback's first 10 seasons (Dan Marino had 34).
Speaking of 34, this was the 35th time that a Brees-led team lost a game with a fourth-quarter lead, the most such losses for any quarterback in NFL history. I would say that is off the charts, but not having the percentages ready for a study is 100 percent a product of writing this on a Friday morning.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 38
Game-winning drives: 58 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 102/193 (52.8 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 21
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjFootball.