Both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints will be coming off of a bye and ready to embark on the second half of their schedules when they meet Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But that's pretty much where the similarities end for the NFC South rivals, as the Saints (7-1) have the second-best record in the NFC, thanks to a six-game winning streak, while the Falcons (1-7) have lost six in a row and could be on the verge of an organizational shakeup.
Widespread public speculation regarding Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn's job status has circulated for weeks now, but owner Arthur Blank did not make a change during the bye week. Instead, Quinn shuffled his coaching staff so he remains in charge of an injury-riddled defense and an ineffective offense for the time being.
New Orleans used the bye week to rest and recover and should be as close to full strength as it has been since Week 1. The Saints currently enjoy a two-game lead in the NFC South but still have five divisional games left, including Sunday's.
This marks the 100th regular-season meeting between these teams, who also have met once in the playoffs. The Falcons lead the all-time series, 52-48, but the Saints have won the past three matchups. Saints head coach Sean Payton has a 17-7 record against Atlanta during his tenure in New Orleans.
Atlanta at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Welcome back Alvin Kamara
After missing the past two games because of knee and ankle injuries, no one needed the bye week more than Kamara. A limited participant in practice on Wednesday, Kamara put in full sessions on Thursday and Friday and carries no injury designation heading into this game. So barring a setback between now and kickoff, he should be good to go.
Even though Kamara has missed two games and been limited in a few others, New Orleans has still been able to run the ball fairly effectively. The Saints are averaging 114.3 rushing yards per game, which puts them 15th in the league. The production actually picked up in the two games Kamara missed, as Latavius Murray and others were able to generate 144 yards on the ground per contest with three rushing touchdowns.
So while Kamara will no doubt reclaim his role as the feature back, head coach Sean Payton knows he has other options to turn to and said that Kamara's load could depend on the opponent. Murray has produced back-to-back 100-yard efforts, while Taysom Hill and Dwayne Washington also did their parts in the wins over Chicago and Arizona.
Regardless of who might carry the ball for the Saints, they should not find too much resistance from Atlanta. The Falcons have allowed 118.4 rushing yards per game, ranking 21st in the league. They have also surrendered nine rushing touchdowns in eight games, which is tied for eighth-worst.
2. Will the Falcons’ defense manage to slow down Drew Brees and company?
As susceptible as Atlanta has been to the run, the Falcons have fared even worse against the pass. They have given up 261.1 passing yards per game, 23rd in the league. Opponents are averaging 12.0 yards per completion, and Atlanta has given up 19 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. That's why Dan Quinn shifted assistant coach Raheem Morris from wide receivers to defensive backs during the bye week.
Despite Drew Brees’ absence for most of the season, New Orleans’ passing attack has remained potent. Saints quarterbacks have combined for an average of 261.0 passing yards per game, 10th highest in the league. They have also combined for 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Atlanta needs to force turnovers to keep Brees and his offense from dominating this game. That's easier said than done, as New Orleans is in the top 10 in the NFL in turnover differential (+3) thanks to committing the second-fewest giveaways (six). In contrast, the Falcons are second-to-last in turnover margin (-11) since the defense has generated just four takeaways.
3. Are the Falcons capable of protecting Matt Ryan?
With the numerous injuries to key players, Atlanta still must put a priority on keeping their quarterback upright. Ryan missed the Falcons' previous game because of a high ankle sprain, putting an end to his streak of 154 consecutive starts. Ryan was limited in practice this week but Quinn pronounced his quarterback "ready" to play Sunday.
Pass protection will be a key for Atlanta on Sunday, as Ryan has already been sacked 19 times and injured his ankle on one of them. Overall, the Falcons' offensive line has given up 60 quarterback hits, which is the fifth most of any team. That could be a problem against a New Orleans defense that has 24 sacks (10th) and has been credited with 49 quarterback hurries (second). If Atlanta wants to have any chance of staying in this game, it starts with giving Ryan enough time to throw the ball.
The Falcons languish in the cellar of the NFC South. They find themselves only half a game ahead of the Redskins for last place in the NFC. Barring a miraculous run of winning at least seven of their eight remaining games, the Falcons have no chance of winning the division. Even if they accomplished that feat, they would need the Saints to lose seven or more contests. Atlanta has no real motivation other than playing the role of spoiler.
At the halfway point of the season, the Saints lead the NFC South by two games. They trail the 49ers by one game for the top seed in the NFC standings. They have a half-game lead over the Packers for the second seed and all-important first-round bye. New Orleans cannot afford to relax, but the Saints will not need to exert much energy in this matchup.
Prediction: Saints 41, Falcons 10
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.