The Saints won a sixth straight game on Sunday to maintain their half-game lead over the Buccaneers in the NFC South but lost their starting quarterback in the process. After taking a tough sack in the first half against the 49ers, Brees had to come out of the game. He was reportedly diagnosed with a collapsed lung and multiple fractured ribs, which will keep him out several weeks.
Jameis Winston grew the second-half lead by a touchdown and passed 6-for-10 for 63 yards, crucially with no interceptions. However, the offense only gained 237 yards, its lowest output since the loss at Dallas in Week 13 of the 2018 season. Head coach Sean Payton is expected to start Swiss Army knife weapon Taysom Hill on Sunday, which adds a layer of intrigue to this rivalry game.
The Falcons, meanwhile, deserved a week away from football after halting the plummeting of their season. Raheem Morris replaced head coach Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start, and since then, Atlanta has won three of its last four contests, even if none have been against winning teams.
The Falcons-Saints rivalry has been evenly matched, with Atlanta having won 53 of their 102 matchups and half of the 50 games in New Orleans. They've even split their 12 games over the last six seasons, although the Saints have won four of the five most recent meetings.
Atlanta at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston substitute adequately for Drew Brees?
Hill will reportedly get the nod as the starting QB despite not attempting a pass last week. However, he did appear on the field for 22 plays, on offense and special teams. After Brees' departure, Hill carried the ball five times for 31 yards, including fumbling away the ball late in the fourth quarter.
An undrafted free agent in 2017 after playing quarterback at BYU, Hill been a member of the Saints since 2017 when he appeared in the final seven games. The following year, he began to contribute to the offense: 40 carries for 204 yards and two touchdowns, four receptions for six yards, and three of seven passes completed for 64 yards. In 2019, he diversified his role by rushing 31 times for 206 yards and a touchdown, catching 21 passes for 259 yards and six touchdowns, and connecting on four of seven passes for 105 yards. Before Sunday, he had 26 rushes for 141 yards for a touchdown, six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown plus four completions on five passing attempts for 86 yards.
Winston possesses more overall professional experience and it won't be a surprise to see him appear. He averaged 274.1 passing yards per game over five seasons as the Bucs starter and led the league in passing yards last season. Of course, he also became the first quarterback to ever pass for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions and averaged more than one pick per game. Winston has appeared in one other game for the Saints this season and completed his only pass for 12 yards.
2. Can the Falcons grab the lead and hold it through the fourth quarter?
Atlanta has struggled late in their contests this season. The Falcons have been outscored 99 to 67 in the fourth quarters of their nine games. They have led going into the last quarter in six games but have emerged with a victory only three times. Twice they have entered the final fifteen minutes only to lose by a field goal as the game clock hit "0:00."
The Falcons' opponent this week has a lot of experience in tight games heading into the fourth quarter. The Saints have faced a tie game in the fourth quarter four times this season and came away with three wins, including two by a field goal in overtime. However, they have barely outscored opponents in the last quarter: 61 to 57.
3. Will Calvin Ridley return to the Falcons' lineup and boost the passing attack?
Atlanta's passing total has fallen short of 300 yards six times during this season. The first four of those resulted in defeats. Atlanta's totals dropped below 300 through the air in their last two games, and part of the reason for the reduced number is Ridley's foot injury.
Ridley sprained his left foot at Carolina two weeks ago. Prior to that injury, he had played in 64 percent of the Falcons' offensive snaps and above 70 percent in six contests. Despite missing the last six quarters, he still leads the team in receiving yards (657) and receiving touchdowns (six). Also, he is tied with Julio Jones for the most receptions with 43 apiece. His reappearance is needed to keep the Saints from double-covering Jones on every play.
Even though the Falcons won three of their last four games, their postseason hopes look bleak. They are 2.5 games behind the Cardinals for the final playoff spot and would have to leapfrog four additional teams. Atlanta probably will not be able to make up that deficit to grab a playoff berth. However, they can make their archrivals' path to the post-season more difficult with a win.
Despite winning on Sunday, the Saints fell out of first place in the NFC due to Seattle's loss. The Saints are behind Green Bay for the top spot since the Packers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Also, the Bucs are only trailing New Orleans by half of a game in the NFC South. Therefore, the Saints cannot let the loss of their future Hall of Fame quarterback interfere with extending their six-game winning streak.
Prediction: Saints 27, Falcons 23
— 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.