ATLANTA -- One by one, New Orleans players kept dropping like crazy due to injuries Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but as the song goes, the Saints kept marching, well, you know the rest. They also kept grinding, churning, willing their way toward another victory atop the NFC South.
That is, until the Atlanta Falcons had enough.
With the clock moving inside of the final 90 seconds and the Saints trailing 20-17, Drew Brees dropped back from the Falcons' 11-yard line, flung his right arm toward the end zone and joined the rest of the universe in anticipation of the ball falling into the hands of his tight end along the way to another improbable comeback for this future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback.
Instead, Falcons linebacker Deion Jones became one of the Flying Wallendas in shoulder pads after he maneuvered around Josh Hill for a leap, an interception and then a flip. Just like that, the Falcons moved closer to defending their NFC championship by clawing to within a game in the division of their hobbling yet gallant archrivals. While the Saints fell to 9-4, the Falcons jumped to 8-5 after winning for the fourth time in five weeks.
The Falcons have been here, done this. They also were 7-5 last year before they went to 8-5 along the way to sweeping the final three games of the regular season to win the division. They can do the same this time with road games against the Buccaneers and the Saints during the next two weeks before closing at home against the Panthers. Those are all division opponents, and they all are suffering from various aches and pains, but this was ridiculous Thursday night for the Saints. I lost count at four, five, seven New Orleans players leaving the game for long stretches or for good. The Saints were down to their third-string left guard. Worse, rookie running back Alvin Kamara suffered a concussion in the first quarter, and he didn't play the rest of the way with his 600-plus yards rushing and receiving for the season.
That said, this game was about Falcons defenders in general and about the acrobatic ways in particular of the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Jones, who had folks still rubbing their eyes afterward.
"Oh, God, man. That was an amazing catch, ," said Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen, with teammates nodding nearby in their locker room. "He flipped upside down. He caught the ball. He landed on his neck. That was a great play. I don't know how he caught it, but I appreciate him catching it."
Even though Allen stood yards away from what could have been a postseason-saving grab by Jones, Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu watched the whole thing from the sidelines.
Or did he?
"It was quick," Sanu said. "I was looking down, and I heard everybody going crazy. When I looked back up, I didn't know what happened."
What happened was the Falcons' defense officially reversed roles with its offense, at least compared to last season. In 2016, Matt Ryan led an offense that featured the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back along with all-everything wide receiver Julio Jones and a bunch of other prolific pass catchers. They averaged an NFL-high 34 points per game, so it didn't matter that that the Atlanta defense was young, aggressive, oh, and shaky. When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl, they faced the New England Patriots with that explosive offense, but they also had a defense that allowed more points per game than any other in Super Bowl history.
Now that Falcons defense is young, aggressive and solid. Good thing, because this wasn't the Ryan who became the NFL's Most Valuable Player last year with his consistently brilliant play. He threw three interceptions against the Saints, and his passer rating was 55.2 to Brees' 103.4. Even so, he connected enough times with Julio Jones and Sanu (a combined 11 catches for 181 yards), and he handed off enough times to Freeman (91 yards on 24 carries) to turn this into a typical squeaker against the Saints. Then, after the Falcons' Matt Bryant drilled a 52-yard-field goal with under four minutes left in the game to break a 17-17 tie, it was up to that defense to keep Brees from becoming Brees.
It took a while. Pass after pass, Brees spent less than four minutes pushing the Saints from his 20 to the Falcons' 11. Then came Deion Jones, who couldn't stop smiling when thinking about it all, especially since he's a Louisiana native who went to LSU.
"I supported the Saints, but I really was a Ray Lewis and Ravens fan," Deion Jones said, before shrugging over whether he thought the Saints should have grabbed him in the draft instead of the Falcons. But what about that interception? His face brightened more, then he added, "It was a call that we were in, and I'm out there by myself, close to the goal line, and pretty much, I looked back, and the ball was right there. I just really wanted to make a play for my brothers, even if it was just me batting it out of his hands. I looked up, and the ball happened to be right in my hands."
After a chuckle, Deion Jones said, "It hurt coming down, too."
Yeah, but that figured. Somehow, this had to end goofy. Such is often the case whenever the Falcons and the Saints renew their two-game rivalry each season, but there also was the way the first half ended.
With the game tied at 10, the Falcons lost their chance for a go-ahead field goal in the final seconds before intermission after the first of Ryan's interceptions. Just like that, Wil Lutz nailed a 47-yarder with no time left to give the Saints momentum going into the locker room.
The Saints were called for an illegal formation.
Well, um. No worries. Not if you're into line dancing and twirling those little umbrellas for your NFL team. That's a five-yard penalty, so Lutz would have to swing his prolific right foot for a 52-yard attempt.
Except . . .
The head referee clicked on his microphone, and to paraphrase, he said the first half was over, because the NFL rule book says you can't get a chance to kick something like a 52-yard field goal with zeroes on the clock when you're called for something like an illegal formation.
No, that wasn't an omen for wonderful things to come for the Falcons in the short term, because Ryan threw the second of his interceptions on the first play of the second half. Twenty-nine yards later, the Saints were in the end zone for a 17-10 lead until Ryan countered near the beginning of the fourth quarter with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Sanu for a 17-17 tie.
Bryant responded, and then Jones.
And he's still smiling.