This decade-old rivalry will be renewed just as it was 10 years ago: in the third game of the season, in the Superdome and on “Monday Night Football.” It also marked the formal return of the Saints to New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. That contest showed the rest of the NFL that the Saints intended to serve as more than just a feel-good story. They throttled their divisional foe en route to the NFC South title and the franchise’s first appearance in the conference championship game.
The Saints have played the Falcons more than any other opponent. Atlanta leads the overall series 49-45. However, these two have evenly split the games played in New Orleans with 23 wins apiece. The Saints have won the last two meetings against the Falcons.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton has enjoyed a great deal of success against Atlanta. Under Payton, the Saints have won 15 of the 20 meetings. New Orleans also has swept both biannual games versus Atlanta in six of his 10 seasons leading the Black and Gold.
Atlanta at New Orleans
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Saints -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Saints’ defensive performance in Week 2: the start of improvement or a mirage?
The Saints’ secondary did not frighten anyone going into the season, partially because it includes two undrafted rookies, Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris. Then, the defensive backfield lost Delvin Breaux due to a broken fibula in the first game. P.J. Williams suffered a season-ending concussion in the first half of the second. How did this unit respond in East Rutherford, facing one of the most talented trios of wide receivers in the NFL, a group that is headlined by Odell Beckham Jr.? New Orleans’ back end forced three turnovers, while the defense as a whole yielded the fewest points in a game (16, but six of those came via a TD on a blocked field goal) since Week 9 of the 2014 season (10 vs. Carolina). Last week, the Saints did not allow an offensive touchdown for the first time since Week 3 back in 2014 (nine points allowed to Minnesota).
2. Can the Falcons’ weak run defense keep Saints’ running game stuck in neutral?
After two games, Atlanta ranks near the bottom of the NFL in rushing defense. The Falcons have allowed an average of 122.5 yards per game and 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. These are despite being only ranked 18th in the number of rushing attempts by opponents.
The Saints and their fans fantasize about merely approaching those average amounts. The combined number of rushing yards gained in two games barely exceeds the median amount of allowed yards by the Falcons. New Orleans enters this game tied for 28th in rushing offense (64.5 ypg). The Saints' offense cannot succeed if opponents do not respect the possibility of handing off the ball to a running back.
3. Will the Falcons be able to exploit the Saints’ placekicking woes?
The Raiders managed to put a hand on Wil Lutz’s 20-yard field goal attempt in Week 1 but the ball still wobbled through the uprights. The Giants scored the lone touchdown of the game last week by blocking his 38-yard attempt. Lutz has taken the blame, explaining that he must increase the trajectory when kicking to avoid defenders' reach. Head coach Sean Payton pointed the finger at the right interior of the line for allowing the blocked kick by New York. Kicks of such short distances should not be blocked or deflected so frequently.
Could the Falcons block a field goal to change the momentum in what projects to be a very close contest? It would be a turnabout of sorts considering the Saints blocked a punt for a touchdown against Atlanta in the Superdome in 2006 and ‘15.
This game could prove to be the turning point of the season for the winner. It would definitely hasten the decline for the loser. A loss by Atlanta would be the Falcons’ second divisional setback in as many games. A third overall loss for New Orleans would leave the Saints falling further behind the rest of the NFC South.
The nostalgia of this same matchup a decade ago will keep the Who Dat Nation energized throughout the game. The primetime kickoff will allow their energy to build even more. Their boisterous animosity toward their neighbors in the NFC South will fuel ear-splitting noise. The Saints' offense subpar performance last week will motivate Drew Brees and company to pile up the yards and points.
Prediction: Saints 37, Falcons 31
— 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.