Return of Julio Jones helps Falcons eliminate Saints

by The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Julio Jones needed only two offensive snaps to dispel any notion that he’d be merely a decoy for the Atlanta Falcons, too hampered by his injured hip to be truly effective.

Racing down the right sideline, he made a twisting, falling grab, looking as if he’d coated his hands with glue, for a 23-yard gain while New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis tried in vain to swat the ball loose.

When his day was done, Jones, who had not practiced or played since Dec.8, had seven catches for 107 yards, and the Atlanta Falcons vanquished the Saints, 30-14 on Sunday to stay alive in the NFC South race.

“He’s a hard guy to defend,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Jones. “When we have him, we’re a much better offense. We’re a much better football team. It was great to have him back.”

New Orleans (6-9), which lost both meetings with Atlanta (6-9), was eliminated with the loss, combined with Carolina’s victory over Cleveland. Now the Panthers (6-8-1) must visit the Falcons, and likely contend with Jones, in a game to decide the division title next week.

Jones said he didn’t feel entirely healthy, just enough so to play hard and block out the pain.

“I needed to be out there with my teammates,” Jones said. “When the ball is in the air, I got to get it. I don’t hear nothing. I don’t feel nothing.”

On Atlanta’s first touchdown drive, Jones made third-down catches of 12 and 24 yards to set up Eric Weems’ 3-yard score on a shovel pass. A third-quarter drive that culminated with Devonta Freeman’s 31-yard touchdown run began with Jones’ catches of 16 and 23 yards, moving Atlanta from its own 14 to the New Orleans 47 in just two plays.

“For him to gut it out and to go play the way he did today, I think speaks volumes about his grit, his toughness, but also showcases what a stud he is,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown.

Here are some things to know about Atlanta’s triumph in the Superdome:

CLOSE CALL: Down 20-7 early in the fourth quarter, New Orleans’ comeback bid was hampered considerably by a disputed call on tight end Jimmy Graham’s catch at the goal line. One video replay angle showed Graham may have scored before being pushed back by safety Dezmen Southward and stripped by fellow safety Kemal Ishmael, who also recovered. The call on the field of a fumble was reviewed, but upheld.

“There was nothing clear and undisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field,” referee John Parry said, adding that if the initial call had been a touchdown, that would have been upheld, too.

RESURGENT PASS RUSH: Atlanta’s last-ranked defense had struggled all season to get sacks, recording only 16 in the Falcons’ first 14 games. The unit registered a season-high five sacks of New Orleans’ Drew Brees.
TROUBLESOME TURNOVERS: While Brees finished 30 of 47 for 313 yards, he was intercepted twice in key moments. The first interception by Desmond Trufant came on a fourth-down play in Atlanta territory in the first quarter, when New Orleans was trying to build on an early lead. The second, by Robert McClain with about 2:30 left, set up a late field goal that gave Atlanta a 23-14 lead. Brees also fumbled twice on sacks. The first was recovered by New Orleans. The second was returned 86 yards for a touchdown by Atlanta’s Osi Umenyiora as time expired.

DIVISIONAL DOMINANCE: Atlanta is now 5-0 against the NFC South, with only one victory outside the division, 29-18 over Arizona.

DASHED HOPES: The Saints, a post-season participant in four of the previous five seasons, struggled to come to grips with their elimination from playoff contention.

“It hurts in every way you can think about it. It’s painful. We work so hard,” Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “The most frustrating thing is to lose five games in a row in the Superdome.”

New Orleans had not lost five straight at home in the same season since going 1-15 in 1980.