Despite withstanding some tough injury news in recent days, the New Orleans Saints have a chance to move into a tie for first place in the NFC South when they face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Saints (5-2) moved within a half-game of the division lead last week with an upset win over the Buccaneers, their third straight over Tom Brady. However, it was a pyrrhic victory as New Orleans lost its starting quarterback for the remainder of the season due to a torn ACL. Furthermore, wide receiver Michael Thomas will require additional surgery on his left ankle and is done for the season.
And just when the Falcons thought that they could salvage this season, adversity struck too. First, Calvin Ridley, their most potent weapon on offense, missed a game to an undisclosed mental health problem. Then, after beating the Jets and Dolphins on the road, they lost at home to Carolina. The Panthers scored 16 unanswered points. The defeat dropped Atlanta to 3-4 and in last place in the NFC South. Ridley since announced that he will "step away from football at this time" to focus on his mental health.
The Falcons lead the all-time series, 53-51. However, the Saints hold a 26-25 advantage for games played in New Orleans and have won six of the last seven meetings.
Atlanta (3-4) at New Orleans (5-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Saints' offense without Jameis Winston
Trevor Siemian replaced Winston early in the second quarter. Despite not having played in a regulation game since Week 2 of the 2019 season, he played efficiently. He completed 16 of 29 passing attempts for 159 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. The question is whether he can lead the offense effectively considering this is only his second year in Sean Payton's system.
Late in the week leading into this matchup, Taysom Hill was fully participating in practice, although he was listed as questionable to play. He had missed the three previous games since sustaining a concussion against Washington. Prior to the injury, he had seen significant action in the first five contests of this season. He completed three of four passing attempts for 12 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. He caught three passes for 37 yards and no scores. He rushed the ball 16 times for 77 yards and three touchdowns. The question is how much does Payton want him to carry the ball, his most effective contribution so far this season, knowing that his bruising style of running makes him susceptible to another head injury?
2. The Falcons' offense without Calvin Ridley
After the Falcons traded Julio Jones to Tennessee, Ridley became the most fearsome target for Matt Ryan. Ridley will not play in this game, as he did not in London, due to mental health issues. Nevertheless, he leads the team in targets (52) and ranks third on the team in receptions (31) and receiving yards (281). His two receiving touchdowns are the second-highest total among the Falcons players.
Ryan may have to rely on teammates other than wide receivers to catch his tosses. Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts leads the team in catches (33) and receiving yards (484) as well as having the second most targets (50). Running back Cordarrelle Patterson has been targeted 41 times, third most, and caught 32 of those for 333 yards, the second-highest totals on the team. None of the other Falcons wide receivers has more than 20 targets, 15 receptions, or 160 yards through the air so far this season.
3. The Saints' offense with the return of Mark Ingram II
Despite the disasters of losing Winston and Thomas within one week, the Saints did have one positive development: the re-acquisition of Mark Ingram II. He returned to New Orleans in a trade with the Texans. Already in his first week back for the Saints, he set season highs for yards per carry (4.5) and receiving yards (25).
Ingram certainly appeared excited for his return to the Superdome, yet the question remains: how much can he contribute? After landing Baltimore as a free agent in 2019, he started every regular-season game except the finale. He rushed at least 12 times in 13 of those contests for an average of 65 yards per game plus 10 touchdowns. The following season, the Ravens made him inactive in six games, including both postseason contests. In 2020, had double-digit carries only twice and never exceeded 60 rushing yards in any game. After his second season there, the Ravens waived him with a year left on his contract, and he only totaled 294 yards on 92 carries for the Texans over seven games.
The Falcons have little margin of error if they hope to reach the playoffs. They have already lost both of the divisional matchups they have played. Their conference record sits at 1-4. The former hurts any chance to win the NFC South, while the latter diminishes the possibility of grabbing a wild card. They need to win this game to bolster any hope of reaching the post-season.
Sean Payton managed to orchestrate a surprising win over the defending Super Bowl champions. That happened despite using his third-string quarterback for most of the game. His All-Pro caliber wide receiver sat on the sidelines for the entire game. However, the Saints' underrated defense came through again when the offense faltered. His mastery over the Falcons will continue.
Prediction: Saints 23, Falcons 16
— 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.