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Atlanta Falcons' revival pulls NFC South, playoffs within reach

It was a wave that would have made Queen Elizabeth proud: There was Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the football in his right hand and 50 yards of unfettered green in his field of vision, turning back toward the north end zone of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday and using his left hand to say goodbye to the New Orleans Saints, figuratively and literally.

A few hours after completing the 86-yard fumble return that closed out the Falcons' 30-14 victory -- setting up a winner-take-all showdown with the Carolina Panthersat the Georgia Dome next Sunday for the NFC South title -- Umenyiora put his team's surprising revival in perspective, recalling a late-October collapse that would have made London Bridge seem historically sturdy by comparison.

Eight weeks earlier at Wembley Stadium, after blowing a 21-0 halftime lead and making a series of unconscionable late-game mistakes in a 22-21 defeat to the Detroit Lions, the Falcons flew home from London carrying a looming sense of doom. With a 2-6 record, a five-game losing streak and an embattled head coach in Mike Smith, Atlanta -- just two seasons removed from a heartbreaking NFC Championship Game defeat -- looked headed for oblivion.

What a difference a half-season (and a terrible division) makes.

"Man, you just never know," Umenyiora said shortly after landing in Atlanta on Sunday night, laughing out loud at the 6-9 Falcons' good fortune. "In the NFL, you just never know what's gonna happen. This is the ultimate, ultimate soap opera."

And thanks to Sunday's victory over New Orleans, one that snapped a two-game losing streak, Atlanta still has one life to live -- and a chance to become the shadiest postseason party crasher since the 7-9 Seahawksstunned the Saints four years ago.

Consider that the Falcons have only one victory against a non-division opponent, a stunning Nov. 30 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals. They've been beaten by the Vikings,Giants,Bearsand Browns -- but they've demonstrated a resilience that was on full display Sunday, with their season hanging in the balance.

Having opened the 2014 campaign with a 37-34 victory over the Saints in Atlanta, the Falcons knew they'd be confronting a stiffer challenge in the Superdome, where visitors have habitually struggled during the Sean Payton era. For Umenyiora in particular, the Dome has been a house of horrors. During his decade-long run with the New York Giants, he suffered three lopsided defeats in the building, losing by a combined score of 142-58.

"Those games were blowouts; they were just miserable," Umenyiora said. "That can happen here, especially if things go bad early."

Sunday's game couldn't have started more dauntingly for the Falcons, who surrendered a 99-yard return to Jalen Saunders on the opening kickoff, setting up Mark Ingram's 1-yard touchdown run. Suffice it to say that as Saunders sashayed through the Atlanta coverage unit and 73,164 fans roared euphorically, the Falcons' sideline was a tad subdued.

"I thought, 'Oh, man -- no way we're going out like this,' " Umenyiora said. "But it was early, which was good. I was just telling everybody on the sidelines, 'Settle down. We've got a long way to go.' "

Umenyiora's teammates complied, scoring the game's next 20 points and summoning a stellar defensive performance that would ultimately swing the game Atlanta's way.

The Falcons forced four turnovers, the biggest coming on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Jimmy Graham leaped to catch a 12-yard pass from Drew Brees and bulled to the brink of the end zone. The star tight end was denied entry by reserve safety Dezmen Southward as fellow safety Kemal Ishmael converged on the pair, though it certainly appeared from one replay that Graham might have reached the ball just over the goal line. In the process, Ishmael managed to dislodge the ball, pick it up and race to the Falcons' 20-yard line, and a replay official upheld the fumble call.

Atlanta's defenders swarmed to the ball with regularity on Sunday. Brees was intercepted twice and sacked five times by five different Falcons as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan ditched the conservative approach he had favored for most of the season.

"First of all, the DBs were tremendous -- Coach Nolan called up some nice coverages, and they were locking 'em down," Umenyiora said. "And he also went away from our 'Big Sub' package, where we put four of our bigger defensive linemen on the field and are geared toward stopping the run.

"This game was like a complete 180 degree departure from what's been going on here. (Nolan) just put all his pass rushers on the field together and turned us loose. That's what we've been wanting all year. He let us go and we turned it loose and got after the quarterback."

As Brees and the Saints continued to hang around, cutting the Atlanta lead to 20-14 with 5:52 remaining and forcing a punt three minutes later, Umenyiora reminded his teammates to keep the pressure on, lest they experience another London-style nightmare.

"I was telling them, 'Just keep our foot on their necks,' " Umenyiora said. "I mentioned that we'd been in that position before and let teams come back against us. I said, 'We've gotta finish this one!' "

The Falcons did, mathematically eliminating the Saints (6-9) -- and it was Umenyiora who provided the finishing touch. On third-and-6 from the Atlanta 8 with 13 seconds remaining and the Saints trailing by nine, Brees took a shotgun snap, pump-faked and had the ball slapped loose from behind by defensive end Kroy Biermann.

The ball bounced right to Umenyiora, who took off and ran up the right hashmark, slowing near midfield to make his symbolic wave. It was around that time that he spotted Saints wideout Kenny Stills closing fast, picked up the pace and angled toward his left, outrunning his pursuer to the end zone.

"At first, I was going slow, trying to make sure I took all the remaining time off the clock," Umenyiora said. "Then I looked to my right and saw No. 84, and I just turned it on. I know some people wanted me to kneel down and end the game, but I thought, 'Naw, man -- not against New Orleans. They whooped me too many times in this building, so they deserve this one.' "

To his credit -- or, perhaps, simply because he was out of breath -- Umenyiora refrained from celebrating in the end zone. He said the Falcons' locker-room scene was similarly subdued, given that they're still a victory away from capturing a division title many outsiders likely don't believe they deserve.

It remains to be seen whether a triumph over the Panthers alone would save Smith's job, but Umenyiora certainly hopes so.

"Winning cures all -- you know that," he said. "Mike's a heck of a coach. Some things haven't bounced our way, but you never know how this is gonna end. And if we win, they're gonna sweep all of that bad stuff under the rug."

If so, it would surely be a gesture that would make Bert from *Mary Poppins* proud.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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