Drew Brees and the 8-2 New Orleans Saints travel to the Georgia Dome to take on their NFC South division rival in Matt Ryan and the 2-8 Atlanta Falcons on the NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football" at 8:25 p.m. ET. Just two wins in 10 tries is not what Falcons fans expected this year. A play away from a Super Bowl appearance a season ago, the Falcons looked prepared for another run at a Lombardi Trophy.
However, injuries and inconsistent play has all but eliminated Atlanta from the playoffs. It's not a familiar feeling, as New England is the only team that was won more regular season games over the last five seasons than the Falcons. Prior to this season, Ryan had lost just five games in the Georgia Dome in five NFL seasons. However, in 2013 he's has already dropped three home games.
The Saints had a unusual down year last season thanks in large part to the absence of head coach Sean Payton. With their genius offensive play-caller back in the mix, New Orleans looks like the Saints of old as they have rolled to the second-best record (behind Seattle's 10-1) in the NFC behind the league's second-best passing offense.
Under Mike Smith, the Falcons have lost eight of their last 11 meetings against the Saints. Overall, the Saints are 12-3 in their last 15 games against Atlanta. The Falcons still maintain the overall edge in regular season games with a a 46-42 record.
3 Things to Watch
Terrific Tight Ends
This game is intriguing because it features Tony Gonzalez, one of the best to ever play tight end, and Jimmy Graham, who is at the forefront of the evolution of the position. Gonzalez, like Graham, is a former college basketball player who paved the way for athletic freaks of nature like Graham to get a chance. Gonzalez is the NFL's all-time leader among tight ends with 1,295 career catches, 14,824 yards and 107 touchdowns. Graham has a long way to go to reach these historic numbers, yet he's been extremely impressive in his four NFL seasons. Graham is on pace for his third straight season of 80 or more receptions, his second 1,000-yard campaign and a career high in touchdown catches. In five of the 10 games he's played this season, Graham has gone over 100 yards receiving, and has caught two touchdowns on four different occasions. Both tight ends were held in check in the season opener, yet each was still a factor in the red zone with a touchdown apiece.
Can the Falcons stop Brees?
Drew Brees is averaging 321.9 passing yards per game and has 26 touchdown passes, both of which are good for second in the NFL behind Peyton Manning. Brees is on pace for his third consecutive season and fourth campaign overall with more than 5,000 yards passing. The former Purdue Boilermaker has thrown for over 300 yards in all but two games this season. He is not afraid to push the ball down the field, ranking fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt at 8.3. In the season opener against Atlanta, Brees went 26 of 35 for 357 yards and two touchdowns, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers. The Falcons don't boast a very strong pass defense, as they've allowed seven touchdown passes during their current four-game losing streak. The Falcons' defense currently ranks 28th in the league in red zone defense, allowing opponents to convert 63.9 percent of the time. However, they did hold the Saints to one touchdown in three red zone trips back in Week 1. Brees will surely pile up yardage, so a bend but don't break strategy looks to be the Falcons' best chance to slow down the high-powered Saints.
Falcons' Running Game vs. Rob Ryan's Defense
Matt Ryan hasn't received much help from his backfield mates this year as Atlanta ranks dead last in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 73.1 yards per contest. Steven Jackson has been banged up all year long, leaving the workload to a committee made up of scat-back Jacquizz Rodgers and career backup Jason Snelling. Jackson has been back for four games now, but has yet to best a 13-carry, 57-yard performance against Carolina. His strength and agility in and out of holes, which made him a bell cow for nearly a decade in St. Louis, looks markedly diminished and he isn't getting great blocking up front. Snelling's recent arrest for marijuana possession further complicates matters for Atlanta. Ryan will likely have to do much of the work against the NFL's most improved defense. Just a season ago, the Saints turned in the worst statistical single-season performance of any defensive unit in NFL history. With the introduction of Rob Ryan at defensive coordinator, all of that has changed. New Orleans claims the NFL's third-best pass defense, allowing just 191.4 yards per game. Ryan is not at all afraid to send anyone and everyone he has on blitzes. As a result, New Orleans is sixth in the leagues with 32 sacks, already more than the 30 sacks the Saints collected in 2012.
Key Player for New Orleans: Corey White, CB
White will be asked to step in for veteran Jabari Greer, who went down last week with a brutal season-ending ACL injury. At the time of his injury, Greer led the team in passes defended with 12 and had one interception. White, a second-year player out of Samford, has yet to start a game this season; however, he does have five passes defended as well as an interception. Keenan Lewis should be shadowing wide receiver Roddy White all game, which means Ryan may look to his other options, like Harry Douglas, to get the ball moving.
Key Player for Atlanta: Roddy White, WR
This was a pretty easy selection. Matt Ryan needs weapons. Sure, he has Tony Gonzalez down the middle of the field. However, teams have begun to shift their coverage inside due to the lack of a true threat on the outside with dangerous vertical threat Julio Jones on injured reserve. Last week, White was blanketed all day by Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis, who held him to just three catches for 36 yards and a late fourth-quarter touchdown. If the Falcons are going to keep up with the explosive Saints, White needs to have his best game of the season.
The free-fall Atlanta has been on this year is astounding. Perhaps it's a testament to the ever-changing, parity-prone world of the NFL. Or perhaps it's simply speaks to the importance of a team's luck with injuries. Either way, the Falcons are drowning and the Saints will not be offering them any free breaths. Look for New Orleans to improve its playoff positioning, while the Falcons get some experience for younger guys as they improve their draft positioning.