ATLANTA -- With the season potentially hanging in the balance, Deion Jones leaped high in the air, about as high as he could go.
He reached even higher, snatching the ball away before it could reach the intended target.
Holding on for dear life with both arms, the Atlanta Falcons linebacker landed flat on his back in the end zone, the ball secured tightly against his chest.
No way he was letting go.
Jones made a leaping interception in the end zone with 1:25 remaining and the Falcons held on for a crucial 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night, setting up a three-way race for the NFC South title.
"It was all about the ball," Jones said. "I just opened up my eyes, and all my brothers were right there, standing over me. It was great."
Matt Ryan shook off three interceptions to guide the Falcons to Matt Bryant's 52-yard field goal with 3:49 to go. The Saints (9-4) were in position to pull out the victory, driving to the Atlanta 11 after Drew Brees converted on fourth-and-1 with a quarterback sneak, as coach Sean Payton passed on attempting a tying field goal.
On second down, Brees attempted to hit tight end Josh Hill in the back of the end zone.
Jones had other ideas.
"When it takes a while to land, you know you're up there," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "He definitely went up and reached for it."
The Falcons (8-5) climbed within one game of the division-leading Saints with three weeks to go, as New Orleans squandered a chance to build a three-game lead on the defending division champs. Atlanta is back in the race and gets another crack at New Orleans when the teams meet again in the next-to-last week of the regular season at the Superdome.
The Carolina Panthers (8-4) also are right in the thick of things.
Ryan had three interceptions in a stretch of nine plays at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. But he tied the game with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 9:55 remaining , finishing 15 of 27 for 221 yards.
Brees was 26 of 35 for 271 yards and two TDs. Yet he was kicking himself for trying to force one at the end.
On the opening possession, New Orleans lost half of its dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield when rookie Alvin Kamara took a shot to the helmet and staggered off with a concussion.
Mark Ingram was left to carry the load as the "Boom and Zoom" duo became simply "Boom." He was held to 49 yards on 12 carries as the Saints largely abandoned one of the league's top rushing attacks. Michael Thomas had 10 catches for 117 yards and a TD .
With Atlanta trying to drive into position for a tiebreaking field goal in the waning seconds of the opening half, Ryan threw a terrible pass that was picked off by rookie Marshon Lattimore, who was back in the lineup after missing two games with an ankle injury.
Lattimore returned it 33 yards to the Atlanta 29 with 4 seconds remaining, setting up Wil Lutz to boot a 47-yard field goal as time expired. But the Falcons caught a break when the Saints failed to have seven blocked on the line of scrimmage, and the penalty resulted in a mandatory 10-second runoff that ended the half with the score tied at 10.
After getting picked off on Atlanta's last play of the first half, Ryan went to the air again on the first play of the second half.
Same result, though it wasn't Ryan's fault.
The ball went through the arms of tight end Austin Hooper, rolled up on his back and was intercepted by Chris Banjo, setting up the 1-yard scoring pass to Thomas.
On Atlanta's next possession, Ryan guided the Falcons to the New Orleans 9. On third down, he attempted to force a pass into the end zone for Julio Jones only to be picked off again by Marcus Williams.
It was the second time this season and ninth time in his career that Ryan has thrown three interceptions in a game.
It was a brutal night for the Saints, which is sure to raise more questions after the health risks of playing on Thursday nights.
In addition to Kamara's injury, New Orleans lost another offensive guard and three starters on defense.
On defense, the Saints lost linebacker A.J. Klein in the first half with a groin injury. Starting defensive end Trey Hendrickson left with an ankle injury and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro was sidelined with a groin injury.
"A lot of different guys go down," coach Sean Payton said. "That became challenging."
Saints: Host the New York Jets (5-7) on Dec. 17 in the first of two straight home games.
Falcons: After a short turnaround for the Thursday night game, Atlanta has an 11-day break before returning to action with a Monday night contest at Tampa Bay (4-8) on Dec. 18.
Pain. Discomfort. Whatever is the range of feelings human beings might experience with 400 pounds pinning them to the ground, they are captured in the images that reside inside Michigan's offensive line room.
Michael Onwenu's size — he measured in at 6-foot-3, 370 pounds last season — is such that the numbers alone would indicate he can dole out bodily harm on a football field, where he carries about an additional 20 pounds in pads.
But the pictures of the biggest Wolverines guard resting comfortably on top of unfortunate defenders illustrate how he can drain both an opponent's lungs and his will with just a little help from the planet's gravitational pull.
"We kind of have a name for it in our room," Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warriner told the Next Pats Podcast. "We call it 'burping' a guy. Because when you fall on them and you're that big, the air comes out of their lungs and sounds like they just burped. We'd be like, 'Mike, did you burp him?'"
Onwenu once was the type of player to help up opponents after knocking them down. But as his team tracked offensive line knockdowns, as he embraced "burping" others as part of his job, he blossomed into an NFL-caliber prospect.
That it was the Patriots who selected him in the sixth round, No. 182 overall, came as a bit of a surprise.
Long-time Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia consistently laid out the requirements for his players thusly: "Smart, tough and athletic enough."
There was often an emphasis on that last word to explain that he wasn't necessarily looking for track athletes. But a baseline of athleticism was required for Patriots linemen to execute their jobs.
Over the years, the Patriots have become more and more athletic on the interior at center and guard. Shaq Mason is, Bill Belichick has said, among the most athletic linemen he's coached. Joe Thuney is athletic enough to play any position on the line in a pinch. David Andrews is a quick-footed center whose movement skills open up a portion of the Patriots playbook that wouldn't be available to them with a slower player.
All of them can scoot. All of them weigh between 300 and 310 pounds. How, then, does a player who weighed 350 pounds at this year's combine, nicknamed "Big Mike," fit in?
"He's much better at footwork and change of direction than you think ... His body fat is not high," Warriner said. "He's just massive. His bone, his muscle mass is just tremendous. It was all closely checked by our strength coach, our nutritionist. They did all kinds of body scans to see if he could really lose.
Some people would say, 'Eh, lose 50 pounds and we'll talk to you.' Mike can't lose 50 pounds. He doesn't have 50 pounds to lose. He could lose 20 pounds and he did for the combine. That was where he's at. But he'll play at about 360, I would imagine — 355, 360.
Onwenu was athletic enough coming out of high school to be rated the No. 4 guard in the country and the No. 1 overall recruit in the state of Michigan.
Offers from Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State, where Warriner coached from 2012-16, don't roll in based on size alone. Onwenu's tape flashes moments of good agility for someone of his size. He can get out of his stance quickly to get to linebackers at the second level or pull and clear space like a human wrecking ball.
There's no doubt that fluidity of movement isn't Onwenu's top trait as a player. And if he sees time on the Patriots offensive line, they may have adjust by dialing back calls that would get him in space.
Consider this, from Belichick back in 2018, when I asked about the challenge of handling the size of a 330-pound defensive tackle the Patriots would be facing that week. Belichick got into a broader discussion about rare size — regardless of position — and its value.
"Well, first of all Phil, let’s start with how many 330 guys are there out there? Now if you’re looking for 190-pound receivers, I mean, there’s eight bazillion of them," Belichick said. "How many 330-pound guys are there? There’s just not that many of them. So, they’re always hard to find. Those guys are always hard to find. I don’t care if they’re tackles, offensive tackles, defensive tackles. For every guy that’s 330, there’s 20 that are 290.
"If you can find the 330 guys, or whatever the number is, that are as athletic and have the skill of guys that weigh 40 pounds less that play the same position, generally speaking, those guys are probably going to outperform the guys that are lesser. Now if there’s some balance, then that’s a different story. And again, there’s only so many 330-pound guys out there, or 370-pound guys, however big Trent Brown is or Marcus Cannon. There’s not an unlimited supply of those guys, so if they have that kind of size and are athletic and have the skills, then chances are they’re going to be playing for somebody.
If they don’t have the skills then they pump gas. There’s something else. But guys that are big and athletic, there’s a sport and a position for most of those guys. It’s the little ones, like me, that were slow and make up for it with lack of quickness, that have trouble.
What the Patriots want to be offensively moving forward could determine the role into which Onwenu eventually grows. Because if they remain a more classic drop-back style, pocket-passing team, then he should get a crack at a significant gig up front.
Maybe he ends up the next Ted Karras, another power-over-quickness player who served as the primary interior backup for most of his four years with the team. Filling in for Andrews in 2019, in a scheme built for Tom Brady, Karras allowed just two sacks and ended up with the eighth-best pass-blocking efficiency figure (98.1) among starting NFL centers, per Pro Football Focus.
Onwenu has proven at a high level that he can do more than de-cleat people.
A three-year starter for the Wolverines, he anchored down to withstand pass-rushes from future pros. According to PFF, he allowed just 13 pressures and one sack over the last two seasons in Ann Arbor. Warriner remembers one rep against the second player taken in this year's draft, Ohio State edge defender Chase Young, where Onwenu snuffed out Young's interior rush before it got started.
"When Mike gets his hands on you and gets locked out, it's over," Warriner said. "I don't care who you are. I don't care how much money they're paying you. I don't care. When he gets locked out on a human being with a good base, it's over. You can watch that time and time again. It doesn't matter who he's going against."
'THAT TAKES A GROWN-ASS MAN'
While that power at the point of attack is valuable, it's worth wondering how it'll play in a Patriots scheme that could be set up to value athleticism up front more than ever before.
Perhaps, with Brady gone, they'll make use of their new fullback, their two new rookie tight ends and a more mobile quarterback in Jarrett Stidham to devise plans that encourage pocket movement. If that means getting offensive linemen on the run — laterally on wide zone plays or out in space on screens — then that might not be best for Onwenu's skill set.
If the Patriots are going to rely more heavily on a power running game that allows Onwenu to dominate an area of five square yards around the line of scrimmage, then that might end up a match made in heaven.
"Just because you're big doesn't mean you can move people," Warriner said. "He knows how to translate his power to the ground. He's very strong. He's powerful. He can move people one-on-one.
"I have a saying in the o-line room: If you can move a man against his will, that's the toughest job in football. There are a lot of things people think are tough. Moving a man against his will, when he doesn't want to be moved, that takes a grown-ass man, and Mike can do that. That's No. 1. He can move people one-on-one."
There's a reason Onwenu lasted until the sixth round, of course. His weight will have to be monitored. There's a chance he's limited scheme-wise. His collegiate experience was limited almost exclusively to right guard, outside of one start on the left side in 2017.
But Onwenu is in possession of a rare trait. That could take him a long way, Warriner believes. And Warriner seen his share of NFL success stories, having coached Taylor Decker (2016 first round, Ohio State), Zack Martin (2014 first round, Notre Dame) and Nick Martin (2016 second round, Notre Dame) during his career.
"Mike used to excite me in practice," Warriner said. "Every day he would do something. I would go, 'Oh!' I've been around a while. I've had a lot of guys play in the NFL, and I've been around some great ones — I mean, some dudes. Mike's in the category with that kind of talent."
Onwenu doesn't have to play like any of those established pros in order to carve himself a role with his new team. He just might need to beat out the likes of Hjalte Froholdt — a third-rounder in 2019 who missed his rookie season injured — as well as fellow 2020 draftees Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard.
Before Onwenu ever steps on the practice fields at Gillette Stadium, he'll have one thing they don't: rare size. If he can move that frame at a satisfactory level? Guys that are big and athletic, there's a position for most of 'em.
Tom Brady wasn't part of the winning team in Sunday's "The Match", but he did dominate the reaction to the charity golf event.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback didn't get off to the best start, as he and teammate Phil Mickelson quickly fell behind to Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. Brady redeemed himself toward the end of the front nine, however, when he nailed a long birdie shot from 100-plus yards out on hole No. 7. It was the highlight of the match.
The funniest moment from the day was Brady ripping the backside of his pants, which drew a hilarious reaction on social media. One of his former New England Patriots teammates, Jason McCourty, didn't watch the event but he heard about Brady's pants mishap. The veteran cornerback also jokingly admitted he's going to tease Brady about it next time he sees the veteran quarterback.
"The most sports I have watched during this thing is I will go on NBA TV, and sometimes they’re playing old NBA games," McCourty said in a video conference call with reporters Wednesday. "I’ve watched Allen Iverson in a playoff game way back when versus Toronto, Vince Carter and them, so that was fun. Honestly, I’m not a soccer fan. I’m not a golf fan. The only thing I saw from TB12 and them was he split his pants at one point and he sunk a (long birdie shot). So, I was happy to see he split his pants. The next time I see him, I’ve got to give him a hard time. But, no, I haven’t. I saw the NBA 2K tournament, Madden tournaments and all of that other stuff. But, too many kids to really sit down and watch non-live type of sports that I’m really into."