Though an injury forced Steven Jackson to sidelines early in Sunday's pivotal division matchup against the New Orleans Saints, his Atlanta Falcons teammates stepped up to deliver a win and keep their season alive.
SJ39 suffered a quad injury in the second quarter of Sunday's game and after treatment from the team's medical staff was taken to locker room before the half and listed as questionable to return. Further tests revealed a quad strain that forced the Falcons to rule him out for the rest of the game.
The loss of No. 39 was a setback for Atlanta, but the Falcons, who have bitten by the injury bug often this season, but they managed to endure.
A touchdown by Eric Weems with three seconds left in the first half gave them a 13-7 lead and they led the rest of the way to a 30-14 victory. The win moved Atlanta (6-9) into a tie for second in the division with New Orleans, but after sweeping the Saints head-to-head this year, the Falcons own the tiebreaker. That sets up a winner-take-all game for the NFC South division crown next week against the first place Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) at the Georgia Dome.
"It's amazing. Next week, we're playing one game to get into the dance (playoffs)," Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. "You can't ask for anything better than that, and anytime you have a chance like that you have to be prepared and give it your all. We came into this game knowing it was like a playoff game. I mean, you lose and you're out. For us, the playoffs are already starting. For us, it's win or go home, basically."
On Sunday, in New Orleans, both teams approached the game with that mindset and it was the Saints who seized the momentum on the first play of the game when rookie returner Jalen Saunders nearly brought the opening kickoff to the house.
The elusive Saunders took the kick just inside the goal line, got some blocks and made an impressive cutback to make kicker Matt Bryant miss, seemingly springing him for a pat to the end zone. But he was chased down and tackled at the one-yard-line by Javier Arenas. From there, Mark Ingram punched it in for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage and just 20 seconds into the game, the Falcons were down 7-0.
Though the score was an early gut-punch, coach Mike Smith was proud of the way his team handled the early adversity.
"Oh my goodness. That is exactly what was going through my mind. I think that we were a little over-aggressive with a couple of players that got out of their lanes," he said of the return. "We were able to overcome it. We did not become overwhelmed by it. In our mind, it was just a quick drive. We knew that we were going to get back out there and get an opportunity to get our offense on the field."
Looking to punch right back, the Falcons set the tone on their ensuing drive by getting S-Jax involved in the action early. A holding penalty on his first carry pushed Atlanta back to their own 10, but the Falcons quickly erased the mistake when quarterback Matt Ryan connected with receiver Julio Jones, who returned after missing the team's Week 15 loss with a hip injury, for a gain of 23 yards and a first down.
"You can't say enough about what Julio did today," Ryan said afterward. "Obviously he's been hurting the last couple of weeks and for him to gut it out and play the way he did today, I think that speaks volumes about his great toughness but also showcases what a stud he is. When he's out there he's making plays that a lot of other people aren't capable of making. So, obviously when he's on the field, that's a big deal for us."
On 1st-and-10 at the 33, SJ rushed to the right for two yards. which set up another big play for the Atlanta passing attack as Ryan connected with Devonta Freeman on a 36-yard pass play to the New Orleans 29. However, the drive stalled there and after three straight pass plays netted a total of three yards, the Falcons had to settle for a 44-yard field goal from Bryant to make the score 7-3.
With points on the board for both sides, just a few minutes into the game, the defenses began to step up for each team. After being given little chance to succeed on their first series of the game, the Atlanta defense came up with a quick three-and-out to force the punt, but the New Orleans defense answered with the same, including a stuff of SJ for a two-yard loss on his only carry of the brief drive.
The Saints offense started the move the ball on their subsequent possession and picked up a pair of first downs to march into Atlanta territory. But the Falcons defense stiffened just outside of field goal range. Faced with a 4th-and-2 at the Falcons 34-yard-line New Orleans was confident they could move the chains instead of kicking a 51-yard field goal. But the left tackle jumped the snap and was whistled for a false start. Now in 4th-and-7 from the 39-yard-line, the Saints still elected to go for it, but Brees was intercepted by Desmond Trufant.
However, the Atlanta offense couldn't make anything of the turnover and the teams again exchanged three-and-outs as the opening quarter drew toward its conclusion. The Falcons got the ball back with 54 seconds left in the half and on the first play of the ensuing drive, SJ39 picked up four yards.
Then, on the first play of the second quarter, Steven was the recipient of a screen pass over the middle from Ryan, which he turned into a 14-yard gain and a first down to the New Orleans 31-yard-line. Two offensive penalties worked to stall the Falcons drive, but Bryant drilled a 50-yard field goal to draw them within one, 7-6.
"We had a good game plan, and we came in knowing what we had to do. We knew we had to go out there and set the tempo early and wear them down, and that's what we did," wide receiver Roddy White said. "I still felt we didn't score enough points, but our defense played great. They all went out there and made plays and got some turnovers. That helped us out a lot."
New Orleans drove into Atlanta territory on their next drive looking to at least get those three points back, but on 3rd-and-5 from the Atlanta 31-yard-line, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was sacked and lost the ball. It was recovered by New Orleans, but all the way back at the 49-yard-line, forcing the Saints to punt.
The ensuing Atlanta drive began with 5:36 remaining in the half and the Falcons at their own 11-yard-line. SJ set the tone with a five-yard gain on the first play, but on a cut during that run, he suffered the quad injury and had to go to the sideline. After an examination by the trainers, he was taken to the locker room and would not return. But the Falcons offense kept moving the ball in his stead on a methodical 15-play drive that soaked all but three seconds of the remaining 5:36 in the half.
Ryan connected with seven different receivers over the course of the drive and completed 9-of-12 passes during the possession for a total of 79 yards. The big play was a throw over the middle to Julio Jones for 24 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard-line that left just eight seconds on the clock. After a timeout, Ryan executed a perfect shovel pass to Eric Weems, who took it into the end zone for a touchdown to put the Falcons ahead 13-7 at the break.
"The biggest thing for us was converting on third down," Ryan said afterward. "That was huge to keep drives moving. I think the most important one was the throw to Julio (Jones) before the end of the first half that got us down to the (three-yard line), but we made a lot of big plays that resulted in touchdowns at the end of the game and that was the difference."
Early in the second half, Atlanta got the news that Steven would not be able to return and they turned to rookie running back Devonta Freeman to step up in his stead. After the teams traded fruitless possession on each of the first second half drives, the Falcons started their second drive of the half with 9:22 left in the third quarter at their own 14-yard-line. The possession got off to an explosive start with back-to-back throws from Ryan to Jones for gains of 23 and then 16 to move them into Saints territory.
After another first down put them in field goal range, Freeman came in to finish off the drive when he took a second down handoff up the middle, got some blocking to the second level, where he made a man miss, and ducked outside where he found a clear path to the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown to increase Atlanta's lead to 20-7.
The Falcons took that lead into the fourth, though the Saints threatened on several occasions to climb back into the game.
On the drive that immediately follow Freeman's score, New Orleans again moved into Atlanta territory and seemed primed to strike for a score to answer as they moved from their own 13-yard-line all the way to the Falcons 14 over the course of 11 plays to close out the third.
Then, on the first play of the fourth, Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham for what appeared to be a touchdown but before Graham could cross the goal line Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael knocked the ball out of his hands and then recovered the fumble and returned it to the 20-yard-line.
"It was an effort play," Ishmael said. "I felt it came out clean on the strip, when it popped out. Jimmy Graham is a big guy. Once he caught the ball it was all about effort, and all I tried to do was hold him up and get the ball out."
Atlanta didn't get points out of the ensuing drive, but killed nearly five minutes of fourth quarter clock after the turnover. New Orleans got it back after a punt with 9:28 left, still down 13 and this time Brees engineered a crucial touchdown drive of 12 plays and 87 yards in just 3:40. It culminated with a four-yard scoring pass to Graham, which pulled the Saints back within one possession, down 20-14 with 5:48 to play.
The momentum continued to shift in favor of New Orleans when their defense stopped Atlanta two yards short of a first down near midfield with 3:29 to go, forcing a punt. But on the second play of the ensuing Saints possession, the Falcons defense quickly halted the rising New Orleans momentum when McClain intercepted a pass by Brees and returned it to the 13. The play allowed the Falcons to waste time off the clock and after the two minute warning, Bryant hit a 32-yard field goal to make it 23-14 with 1:56 to play.
The Saints made one more bid to get back in the game, but on the 10th play of the ensuing drive with just 13 seconds left in the game, the Falcons defense closed out a dominant performance in style when Brees was sacked by Kroy Biermann and fumbled the ball was recovered by defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who returned it 86 yards and scored as time expired to give Atlanta a 30-14 victory.
"I was really proud of the way our football team came out and performed," Smith said afterward. "They did an outstanding job. Preparation was very good throughout the week. I thought that the coaching staff, offensive, defensive and special teams, did a very good job preparing these guys. We went out and we executed. We did a very good job of putting pressure on the quarterback, probably the best that we have done all season. We had five sacks, two recovered fumbles, and the two picks (interceptions)."
The Falcons (6-9) now enter the final week of the 2014 season with a chance to accomplish their first goal of winning the NFC South title, and they'll have the opportunity to clinch it at home when they host the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons enter Sunday's game a perfect 5-0 against a divisional opponents this season. One of those wins came at Carolina in Week 11 when Atlanta came from behind to win 19-17 thanks to a late Matt Bryant field goal. SJ39 carried 17 times in that contest, but his status for the rematch is up in the air as he is listed as questionable for Sunday's game with the quad injury.
SJ has not missed a game yet this season and it is certain that he will do everything in his power to get on the field as his team seeks to earn what would be just the second playoff appearance of his career. The Falcons are looking to secure their fourth playoff trip in the last five years and Ryan said after Sunday's win over New Orleans that Atlanta doesn't care about how pretty their path has been to the postseason, they just want to get there by any means necessary.
"It doesn't matter how you get there – you just have to get in. We've done it all kinds of different ways before but it's no less sweet when you get it done," he said. "That's why you work so hard in the offseason and that's why you put the time into training camp is to try and have opportunities late in the season just like this. I mean, we have a game at home and for us, if you win, you're in. Obviously this year has shaken out a lot different than any other year I've been a part of in our division. But even saying that – it doesn't matter. We are where we are, and we're excited about our chances."
The game was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff, but the NFC South division championship game has instead been flexed to the late-afternoon time national TV time slot and kickoff from the Georgia Dome is now slated for 4:25 p.m. ET with the game airing nationally on CBS.
- Jackson Injures Quad, Won't Returned in Week 16 game (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Quad injury for Steven Jackson not believed to be serious (ESPN NFL Nation, Dec. 22, 2014)
- Game Notebook: Falcons at Saints (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Falcons prevail in NFC South Showdown (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 21, 2014)
- What they said: Falcons at Saints (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Falcons' quoteboard after win over Saints (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Transcripts: Smith, Ryan Press Conferences (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Report Card: Falcons defense turns in A-plus outing (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 21, 2014)
- Upon Further Review: Falcons at Saints (Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 21, 2014)