Jones Catches 2 TDs, Falcons Beat Panthers 31-23

He found it against the Carolina Panthers.

Jones hauled in fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 17 and 75 yards from Matt Ryan and the Falcons overcame a 16-point deficit to beat the Panthers 31-23 Sunday.

Jones bounced back after a rough outing against Houston last week in which he had two drops, including one of Atlanta’s final plays, and two costly penalties in a 17-10 loss to the Texans.

“He’s had some plays I’m sure he’d like to have done better, but that’s him maturing, and understanding what the NFL is all about,” Ryan said. “Sometimes, you’re not going to make the plays you want to make, but it’s all about how you respond to those situations. He did a great job for us today, but it doesn’t surprise me, because that’s been his deal the whole year.

“He’s worked real hard, and has been into it, and has done everything you could ask for from a rookie.”

Ryan finished with 320 yards passing and his four TDs matched a career high. As important, Ryan kept the Falcons (8-5) in playoff position in the wild-card race with three games left.

“We approached it as the first of four legs,” Ryan said. “We’ve knocked the first leg out and now we’ve got to move on and keep going.”

Atlanta closes the season with Jacksonville at home, at New Orleans and at home against Tampa Bay.

Ryan’s comeback shouldn’t surprise anyone — he seems to have Carolina’s number.

The first time the teams met, the Falcons trailed by three points in the fourth quarter but rallied for a 31-17 win on Oct. 16.

Down 16 points at the half, Ryan earned his “Matty Ice” nickname.

He came out of the locker room poised and calm but firing on all cylinders in the second half, throwing for 232 yards and three scores.

Jones, who finished with 104 yards receiving, was quiet for most of the game but caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to give the Falcons a 24-23 lead early in the fourth quarter. After Olindo Mare missed a field goal that would have put the Panthers up by two, Ryan found Jones across this middle for a 75-yard, catch-and-run touchdown with 4:17 left in the game.

Carolina’s final drive ended with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 27.

“He just kept his poise,” Jones said of Ryan. “He kept it positive on the sideline, encouraged us to keep it going, keep it going. Eventually, we did, and we came up with a W at the end.”

Looking to push the tempo, the Falcons went to a no-huddle offense quite a bit in the second half and tried to take advantage of a matchup with reserve cornerback Darius Butler on Jones.

“We got a look where we felt we’d had a pretty good matchup on the backside with Julio (Jones),” Ryan said.

Both of Jones’ touchdown catches came against Butler.

“You know, they were coming at me a few times with Julio,” Butler said. “They like that matchup. I made some plays early and he made some big plays late. You’ve got to hold up. That’s the name of the game. You got to finish it out.”

For the Panthers (4-9), it was more of the same, marking the sixth time this season they’ve lost after being ahead or tied in the fourth quarter.

Cam Newton started strong, completing 9 of 14 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns in the first half as the Panthers built a 23-7 lead. But Newton was intercepted twice in the second half, including once on a poor decision when he tried a shovel pass to running back Jonathan Stewart with his non-throwing left hand as he was falling to the ground. The result was a gift interception for Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson.

Ryan cashed in two plays later as running back Marquizz Rodgers beat linebacker James Anderson for a 31-yard touchdown.

A glum Newton called his decision “terrible.”

“I tried to get the ball to Stew and tried to avoid the sack,” he said. “I should have just ate the ball and taken the sack. Both interceptions were my fault. If you expect to win games you have to protect the football and I did a poor job of that today.”

Despite their struggles in the second half, the Panthers looked poised to regain the lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Newton couldn’t hook up with Greg Olsen in the back of the end zone and the Panthers settled for a 36-yard field goal attempt. But Mare, just as he’d done with a chance to tie the game late at home against Minnesota, pushed a very makeable go-ahead field goal wide left.

Coach Ron Rivera said he plans to sit down with Mare to talk about what’s wrong.

“It’s the second one he’s hooked left, pretty much from almost the same area (on the field),” Rivera said of Mare, who was given a four-year, $12 million contract this offseason.

The Falcons seized the momentum.

Two plays later, on second-and-11, Jones caught a pass over the middle and broke through a tackle by Butler and Sherrod Martin and raced 75 yards to the end zone.

The Falcons outscored the Panthers 24-0 in the second half.

“We just brought a different attitude out there in the second half,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “They caught us off guard early with a couple of things they didn’t show us on film. In the second half, we bit down and did what we needed to get done.”

Notes: The Falcons are 21-0 when Ryan has a quarterback rating of 100 or more. … Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith became the 35th player in NFL history to reach 10,000 yards receiving for his career on a 16-yard reception in the second quarter.

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Saints and Colts Not Certain of Return to Playoffs

This has been the most unpredictable of N.F.L. seasons. Call it parity or mediocrity, but only the , the Atlanta Falcons and the have secured playoff spots in the 12-team field. The and the must wonder if they have fallen into a fever dream. They probably still remember what it felt like to cruise toward the Super Bowl. It was just a year ago, after all, that their division opponents put up little fight, that their playoff position was guaranteed, that they were already well into their meticulous plans to rest their most critical players.

But Super Bowl hangovers can linger, especially when compounded by ennui and injuries. On Sunday, during the most critical slate of games of a topsy-turvy N.F.L. season, the Colts and the Saints found themselves in oddly unfamiliar territory, playing must-win games in December.

When it was over, their paths had diverged as surely as they did on that Sunday night in February. The Colts won, the Saints lost, the playoff picture remaining muddled.

Two weeks ago, the Colts were on the brink of dropping out of the playoffs for the first time in nine years. But on Sunday, they kept alive their hopes of winning the A.F.C. South and going to the playoffs for the ninth straight season with a 34-24 victory over Jacksonville. The Jaguars would have won the division with a victory.

Instead, if the Colts beat Oakland and Tennessee in the final two weeks of the season, they will win the division and the Jaguars will once again remain home. Jacksonville Coach Jack Del Rio said he fully expected to leave Indianapolis as the division champion.

“We knew our backs have been against the wall for a couple of weeks now,” Colts Coach Jim Caldwell said. “We’re still just giving ourselves another opportunity down the road. We have another game, just like this game, with the same thing at stake. It’s not like anything has changed for us.”

For the Saints, though, something definitely changed. The oddly timed mistakes and unevenness that marked the early part of their season resurfaced in a 30-24 loss to Baltimore. On Sunday, the defense allowed 208 yards rushing.

The Saints had won six games in a row, but, just like the Colts, they went the way of their quarterback. ’s three-game interception-a-thon seems to have ended at the right time. He completed 29 of 39 passes for 229 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions as the Colts also got 155 yards rushing. Brees helped the Saints roar back from a 21-7 deficit to tie the in the fourth quarter only to throw a tipped-ball interception that ended the Saints’ final drive.

If the Saints are to return to the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to do it as a wild-card team. Their loss, combined with Atlanta’s victory over Seattle, leaves the Saints two games behind Atlanta, who are the likely top seed in the N.F.C.

“We control our destiny,” quarterback said. “It’s too early to look at the playoff picture right now, but if we are a wild-card team, the road to the Super Bowl will be on the road. We can handle that.”

The may not have to. Their victory over the , on the strength of their running game, gave them a one-game lead over the in the A.F.C. West, with home games against Tennessee and Oakland remaining. San Diego’s playoff chances were further imperiled when beat the Steelers, because the Jets and Chargers are vying for one of two A.F.C. wild-card spots.

But the Steelers’ loss gave renewed life to the Ravens. Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot based on the strength-of-schedule tie breaker. But the Steelers and the Ravens are tied for the A.F.C. North lead, although Pittsburgh currently leads the tie breakers for the division title, too.

Baltimore, as it turned out, may best symbolize the utter chaos of this season. Its victory over New Orleans was the ninth game this season in which the Ravens let a fourth-quarter lead slip away, an indication that perhaps one of the most vaunted defenses of the last decade could finally be wearing down. But with the Saints rolling and the Ravens’ division hopes fading, the defense suddenly righted itself, stopping New Orleans on two straight fourth-quarter drives and keeping Baltimore’s division hopes alive.

Linebacker , the sage of the Ravens’ defense, said that when the Saints tied the score, he thought nothing of the team’s recent history.

“As long as it’s a tie score, we can’t lose,” he said. “And that’s what I was walking on the sideline telling the guys: ‘Let’s go finish it now. Let’s finish it.’ ”

Now they and the multitude of teams still alive must finish the season.

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