Atlanta Falcons Blog

Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cover 9@9: How did Sean Payton get away with choke sign?

Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It's our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons (9-5). The defending NFC champion Falcons are set to face the New Orleans Saints (10-4) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

1. NFL IGNORED CHOKE SIGN: The NFL is sending the wrong message by not addressing Sean Payton’s in-game taunting actions against Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.

The league was more concerned about Payton storming the field and harassing the game officials, who called 11 penalties against the Saints (nine went for first downs for the Falcons) in the 20-17 win on Dec. 7. Allegations of home-cooking have been levied by our pal Bobby Hebert.

Payton was fined $10,000 for entering the playing field during the game against the Falcons by the NFL on Friday.

Payton was not fined for appearing to give Freeman the “choke” sign in the game and saying “you choked. You choked.”

After the completion of this week’s games, the NFL reviewed Payton’s conduct.

Payton gave the choke sign to Freeman and his conduct toward game officials near the end of the game, which drew an unsportsmanlike penalty with 1:05 to play was reviewed.

It is standard to review any unsportsmanlike conduct, regardless of whether a penalty is called, according to the league.

Payton’s memory about the choke sign was foggy after the game.

“I don’t remember that,” Payton said.

Freeman remembered it just fine, but isn’t dwelling on the foul incident.

The Falcons trailed 17-10 when Payton gave them the choke sign.

The act occurred after Freeman ran out of bounds on a first-and-10 play from the Saints’ 33 for no gain. It could be heard, “You choke, you choke” on the audio of the broadcast.

Payton apparently was referring to the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.  Some contend that he may have been signaling to the refs that one of his players was being choked.

Earlier in the season, Payton was seen yelling at Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter after Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston instigated a fight between wide receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

He also claimed not to remember that incident.

In 2014, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman was fined $7,875 for making a choking gesture toward San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the NFC Championship game.

The let Payton off the hook.

The message seemingly is that’s its OK for a coach to lose control and taunt a player. But a player-on-player taunting is unacceptable.

Just another inconsistent ruling from the NFL.

PAYTON VS. FALCONS: Payton is 15-8 against the Falcons since tacking over in 2006. He's 13-7 if you throw out the 1-1 spilt during the 2012 season when he was suspended for Bounty Gate. He's outlasted Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith and now is going against Dan Quinn.

Under Quinn the Falcons are 3-2 against Payton and if they can go to 4-2, they'll wrap up a playoff berth.


2. NOBIS FUNERAL: Here’s what Steve Hummer wrote. Tommy Nobis had led an epic football life. Just as he had endured a tragic football death, losing himself to dementia and leaving to question the exact toll of all those glorious collisions.

On a dull gray late Tuesday morning in Buckhead, they held a very football funeral.

CLICK HERE for the entire story.

3. PRO BOWLERS: (By Chris Vivlamore): Falcons’ Julio Jones and Alex Mack were named to the Pro Bowl roster, the NFL announced Tuesday night. Each were named starters.

The Falcons had six Pro Bowl players last season on the way to the Super Bowl.

For Jones, it is the fifth Pro Bowl of his seven-year career, including the four consecutive honors. The wide receiver is third in the league in receiving yards at 1,215. His total includes a 253-yard game in Week 11 against the Buccaneers. It was the third 250-plus yard game of his career, the most in NFL history. Jones also broke NFL records with the most catches (563) and receiving yards (8,649) in his first 90 games.

Jones has three 100-yard games this season, bringing his career total to 38.

For Mack, it was the fifth Pro Bowl of his nine-year career, including three consecutive. He was honored three times with the Browns before joining the Falcons in 2015. The center has anchored the Falcons offensive line and started every games since 2015. This season, he has been a part of an offensive unit that is ranked ninth in the NFL in total offense, eight in rushing and 10th in passing.

Last season, Vic Beasley, Matt Bryant, Devonta Freeman and Matt Ryan joined Jones and Mack as Pro Bowls. Ryan was named to his fourth Pro Bowl on his way to winning the NFL MVP award. The six missed the exhibition due to Super Bowl LI.

4. PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES: With the win, the Falcons now have a 84.2 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to They have a 24.9 percent chance to win the division.

There’s even a scenario where they could reach the playoffs with a 9-7 record. The Falcons have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Lions, Cowboys and Seahawks, who are all 8-6 and still mathematically alive.

5. FALCONS PLAYOFF SCENARIO: Here’s the Falcons official playoff scenario for Week 16 of the NFL season, released by the league.

ATLANTA FALCONS (9-5) (at New Orleans (10-4), Sunday)

Atlanta clinches a playoff berth with:

1)  ATL win  OR

2)  ATL tie + DAL-SEA tie + DET loss or tie


6. SERIES RECORD: This will be the 97th meeting between the Falcons and the Saints. The Falcons lead the series 51-45 and have won the last three matchups, including a 45-32 win last season in New Orleans.

7. NEAL SETS MARK: Falcons safety Keanu Neal set an NFL record for most forced fumbles in the first two seasons by a defensive back in Monday night’s game against the Buccaneers. Neal set the mark with a forced fumble in the second quarter.

Neal hit Buccaneers running back Peyton Barber on the Atlanta 4-yard line and recovered the fumbled.

It was his third forced fumble of the season and eighth of his career.

Neal was tied with David Whitmore (1990-91) who also had seven.

The Falcons were up 14-7 when Neal stopped the scoring threat.


8. JONES NEEDS ONE CATCH: Falcons two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones is one catch away from passing Terance Mathis for second place on the franchise’s all-time time receptions list.

Jones, who was drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2011, has 573 catches. Mathis made 573 receptions over eight seasons (1994-2001) with the Falcons.

Roddy White is the franchise’s all-time leading receiver with 808 catches, 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns.

Jones has 8,771 yards and 43 touchdowns.

Mathis, who played at Redan High and New Mexico, played for the Falcons from 1994 to 2001. Overall, Mathis, who was drafted in the sixth round of the 1990 draft by the Jets, played 13 seasons in the NFL and finished with 689 catches.

He also played with the Jets (1990-93) and the Steelers (2002).

9. SACK A-TAKK: Rookie defensive end Takkarist McKinley had a quarterback sack and hit against Tampa Bay. He now has six sacks on the season and is tied with Aundray Bruce for the second-most sacks by a rookie in team history.

He needs one to tie Ron Pitts and two to past him.

DEPTH CHART: The Falcons released their official depth chart for the Saints game on Tuesday.

The Falcons (9-5) are set to play the New Orleans Saints (10-4) at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Running back Tevin Coleman remains in the concussion protocol. Coach Dan Quinn will gave an update later Wednesday. Terron Ward, who rushed eight times for 40 yards, would slide up to his spot if he can’t make it back in time.

Also, left guard Andy Levitre is set to return to practice. Ben Garland started for him the past two games against the Saints and Bucs.

The three highest graded players on the Falcons team after the win over the Bucs were left tackle Jake Matthews (91.6), Garland (87.3) and right tackle Ryan Schraeder (85.6), by It was the highest game grade of the season for Matthews and Garland.

Here’s the official depth chart for the New Orleans game:


WR 11 Julio Jones, 14 Justin Hardy, 19 Andre Roberts

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Ty Sambrailo

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow

C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland

RG 71 Wes Schweitzer, 63 Ben Garland

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 68 Austin Pasztor

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Levine Toilolo, 85 Eric Saubert

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Taylor Gabriel, 17 Marvin Hall, 15 Nick Williams

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 28 Terron Ward

FB 40 Derrick Coleman


DE 50 Brooks Reed, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 98 Takk McKinley

DT 92 Dontari Poe, 79 Ahtyba Rubin

DT 97 Grady Jarrett

DE 91 Courtney Upshaw, 90 Derrick Shelby

LB 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 53 LaRoy Reynolds

LB 45 Deion Jones, 56 Sean Weatherspoon

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 42 Duke Riley, 36 Kemal Ishmael

CB 23 Robert Alford, 29 C.J. Goodwin, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden

NB 34 Brian Poole, 37 Ricardo Allen

S 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee

S 22 Keanu Neal, 20 Sharrod Neasman


K 3 Matt Bryant

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy

PR 19 Andre Roberts, 18 Taylor Gabriel

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher


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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.