Two weeks after a hotly contested matchup, Atlanta and New Orleans will go back at it; his time with first place in the NFC South on the line.
The Falcons (9-5) won the first game, 20-17, coming back from a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The Saints (10-4) had the ball in the red zone needing just a field goal to tie, but Drew Brees was picked off in the end zone, allowing Atlanta to run out the clock.
Although it wasn’t the prettiest game (11 penalties by New Orleans, three interceptions by Matt Ryan), the intensity and animosity of a rivalry was certainly present. Don’t be surprised if either or both carries over to this meeting in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, even though it will take place on Christmas Eve.
The Falcons enter this game after beating Tampa Bay on the road this past Monday night. Atlanta wasn’t explosive on offense but used a balance attack (209 passing yards, 201 rushing) to outlast the Buccaneers. A third straight win on Sunday would not only clinch a playoff spot but also put the Falcons in first place over both the Saints and Panthers in the crowded NFC South thanks to a better division record.
Meanwhile, New Orleans last week beat the New York Jets 31-19 at home, but the Saints had their struggles on both sides of the ball. The offense turned it over three times and had trouble converting third downs, while the defense gave up more than 100 rushing yards and weren’t able to full take advantage of the matchup against Jets backup quarterback Bryce Petty. Now New Orleans needs to figure out a way to even things against the Falcons or the Saints will lose their grip on first place in the division.
Atlanta at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Saints’ running attack on the decline?
New Orleans only managed 50 rushing yards and no touchdowns on 15 carries in the loss to Atlanta two weeks ago. That meager total can be partially explained by Alvin Kamara (right) being limited to one rushing attempt. He left in the first quarter due to a concussion.
Last week produced better results on the ground, as the Saints finished with 131 yards and two touchdowns on 28 attempts (4.7 ypc) against the Jets. Mark Ingram led the way with 74 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns, one of which covered 50 yards.
But the flip side of this is that the long TD run by Ingram, which happened late in the fourth quarter, accounted for more than half of his yards. Kamara was on the field for less than half of New Orleans’ offensive snaps, and he managed just 44 rushing yards on 12 carries. Much of the Saints’ success this season can be attributed to the production of its two Pro Bowl running backs. Can they get back to punishing opponents on the ground?
2. Will Matt Ryan be more careful to protect the ball this time?
Ryan’s three interceptions in consecutive possessions nearly cost Atlanta the first encounter with New Orleans earlier this month. The first sabotaged a potential scoring drive at the end of the first half. The second one occurred on the first play of the second half. The third ended a drive in the red zone. Fortunately for Ryan, his defense bailed him out by picking off Drew Brees in the end zone with less than two minutes left and the Saints only trailing by three points.
The 2016 MVP, Ryan has struggled at different times this season. He also threw three interceptions in a Week 3 win at Detroit. He had three turnovers in the Falcons’ home loss to Buffalo a week later. He fumbled the ball three times, losing two of them, in a Week 8 victory on the road against the Jets.
After averaging 309 passing yards per game with 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season, Ryan has seen his production drop steeply to 249 yards per game (13th in the NFL) with 18 TDs and 11 INTs. His passer rating of 92.0 has him ranked just 16th in the league. Ryan was a big reason why Atlanta made it to the Super Bowl last season, but there have been many instances where the Falcons have won this year in spite of their quarterback. Wil that trend continue or can Ryan find his stride and help put his team in the best possible positon to defend their conference title?
3. Can the Saints cut down on the self-inflicted mistakes?
The pinnacle of a self-destruction for these Saints over the past few weeks occurred at Atlanta. They committed 11 penalties for 82 yards, nine of which gave the Falcons a first down. However, this worrisome trend started three weeks earlier. In a 34-31 win at home against Washington, New Orleans lost 54 yards and gave up three first downs to the Redskins.
The next week on the road, the Saints were docked 112 penalty yards (and four first downs) in a 26-20 loss to the Rams. That was followed by 68 yards and four first downs via penalty in a 31-21 home win over the Panthers. Last week against the Jets the damage was 92 yards but only three first downs. That still brings the total to 408 penalty yards and 23 first downs over a five-game stretch. It’s stating the obvious, but New Orleans cannot afford such a high level of generosity towards any team, but certainly not Atlanta again.
The NFC South will not be decided solely by the result of this game. However, its result will weigh heavily on the outcome. The winner will clinch a playoff berth at the least.
A victory by the Saints would end the Falcons’ quest to repeat as divisional champions. New Orleans would then only need to beat Tampa Bay on the road next week to claim the division title. A Saints victory and Panthers loss to the Buccaneers this week also would give New Orleans the NFC South crown.
But if Atlanta wins in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Falcons would jump into the driver’s seat with a home date against Carolina on tap for Week 17.
Regardless of the possible scenarios, fans should expect another hard-fought game between these two bitter rivals. And just like last time, look for the home team to escape with a last-minute victory.
Prediction: Saints 24, Falcons 20
— 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.