NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Julio Jones’ remarkable return kept the Falcons alive in the NFC South playoff race while Jimmy Graham’s fumble at the goal line sank the Saints.
Coming back from a hip injury that had kept him out of practice for two weeks, Jones caught seven passes for 107 yards, and Atlanta remained in playoff contention with a 30-14 victory Sunday.
Matt Ryan completed 30 of 40 passed for 322 yards and a touchdown, and Devonta Freeman ran for a 31-yard score for Atlanta (6-9), which faces Carolina (6-8-1) for the NFC South title next week in the Georgia Dome.
The Saints (6-9), who committed three turnovers in the fourth quarter, lost their fifth straight at home and were eliminated with Carolina’s victory over Cleveland.
Jimmy Graham fumbled inside the Atlanta 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, though whether he actually scored on the play will remain a matter of debate. He tried to push his way through two defenders before Kemal Ishmael ripped the ball away and recovered.
At least one replay angle showed that the ball may have broken the plane the goal line, and the Superdome crowd roared when it was shown on large video boards. However, referee John Parry could not find evidence conclusive enough to overturn the call on the field. Parry’s announcement spawned a cascade of boos from anxious Saints fans.
The Saints still had a chance to drive for a winning score in the final three minutes, but Robert McClain’s interception of Drew Brees in Saints territory set up a Falcons field goal. The Saints were driving in the final seconds, when Osi Umenyiora returned Brees’ fumble for an 86-yard TD as time expired.
Saints offensive players offered only half-hearted pursuit of Umenyiora, who turned and waved goodbye to the Falcons’ long-time rivals as he trotted for the score.
The play also punctuated a remarkable performance for a Falcons defense that was banged up and ranked last in the NFL.
Atlanta sacked Brees five times, the most this season for the Falcons’ defense, which came in with only 16 sacks.
Brees finished 30 of 47 for 313 yards and one touchdown to Graham, which pulled the Saints as close as 20-14 with 5:48 to go. Brees was also intercepted by Desmond Trufant on a fourth-down pass in the first half.
Jones had not practiced for two weeks and had missed last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, but made one first-down catch after another against New Orleans.
All three of his first-half catches went for double-digit yards and extended scoring drives. He had third-down catches of 12 and 24 yards during the Falcons’ first touchdown drive. The latter catch in traffic over the middle put the Falcons at the Saints’ 3, and Eric Weems scored on a 3-yard shovel pass on the next play.
Seeking for fire up the home crowd in a crucial game, the Saints changed up their introductions, turning off the house lights during a pyrotechnic display while fans held up their mobile phones as if at a concert.
Fans then went into a frenzy when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up Mark Ingram’s touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
But New Orleans struggled to sustain drives after that while the Falcons chipped away with a pair of field goals before taking the lead for good on Weems’ TD.