NFC South rivals renew acquaintances in Atlanta
After barely scraping by at home last week, New Orleans hits the road to take on rival Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as both teams look to jockey for early positioning in the NFC South. The Saints’ offense looked inept against the Browns until the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Scoring 18 of their 21 points in the final nine minutes of the game helped the Saints escape the ignominy of being the first home team to lose to the Browns since October 2015. An astounding meltdown by Cleveland’s kicker — two missed field goals and two missed extra points — greatly helped the Saints.
Meanwhile, the Falcons narrowly pulled out a victory at home over the Panthers. The Falcons built a 14-point lead in both the third and fourth quarters but were not able to secure the victory until Cam Newton’s pass to D.J. Moore fell incomplete on the last play of the game.
The Falcons lead the all-time series 52-46. For games played in Atlanta, the Falcons hold an advantage of 36-24. These two teams have split their last twelve matchups. Dating to 1970, these two franchises have faced each other at least twice in every season not truncated by a strike.
New Orleans at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints +3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Falcons curtail Michael Thomas?
Michael Thomas has amassed 134.5 receiving yards on average in the first two games of this season. That is currently the second-highest average for any player in the NFL. His 28 receptions lead the league so far. He has scored three touchdowns, tied with three other receivers for second most in the NFL.
Thomas has served as a vital cog in the Saints’ offense versus the Falcons. He has caught a touchdown in all four of his games against Atlanta and has grabbed between four and 10 receptions in each of those outings, averaging 105 receiving yards with more than 70 in each. Just as important, he has never fumbled the ball when facing the Dirty Birds.
The Falcons’ pass defense has been pedestrian up to this point. They are 21st in passing yards allowed, and their three passing TDs allowed are tied for 17th. Injuries in the secondary may further hamper the Falcons' ability to keep Thomas under wraps. Safety Keanu Neal will miss the entire season due to a torn ACL. Isaiah Oliver missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury and is listed as questionable for this week. Can anyone left among Atlanta’s defensive backs lock down Thomas?
2. Can the Saints curtail Julio Jones?
This young season has been a mixed bag for Julio Jones. He has caught 15 passes for 233 yards so far this season, but he has yet to catch a touchdown, nor has he carried the ball yet on a rushing attempt.
Jones' record against New Orleans is typically solid: In 13 games, he has caught 75 passes for 1,160 yards and three touchdowns, but no rushing attempts. In the past three seasons, Matt Ryan has targeted Jones between seven and 11 times versus the Saints. In five of those six contests, Jones caught five or more passes and piled up more than 90 receiving yards.
Two games into the season, the Saints’ secondary has already been torched. In Week 1, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson both had more than 140 receiving yards as the Buccaneers accumulated 417 passing yards. The following week, the Black and Gold defensive backs improved somewhat, surrendering 246 passing yards to Cleveland with no receiver compiling more than 81 yards. Can the Saints hold Jones under 100 yards while also keeping other receivers from having huge performances?
3. Who is missing more critical components: the Saints’ rushing attack or the Falcons’ rushing defense?
Mark Ingram is only halfway through his suspension due to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. The Saints have struggled to run the ball compared to last season. No one has run for more than 50 yards in either game. Only Alvin Kamara has contributed more than 18 rushing yards in either game. Will someone step up as a complement to Kamara?
Atlanta’s defense appears to be vulnerable against the run. They will be missing linebacker Deion Jones, who is out for the season with a foot injury. Another linebacker, Corey Nelson, is questionable due to a calf injury. Two defensive ends, Derrick Shelby and Takkarist McKinley, are both listed as questionable with groin injuries. The Falcons allowed both the Eagles and Panthers to rush for more than 110 yards.
The Saints and Falcons enter the game with identical overall records. However, not all 1-1 tallies are equal. The Falcons dropped their opener on the road and then won a divisional game at home. The Saints lost a divisional game at home and then secured a last-second, non-conference victory at home. The game matters slightly more to the Saints if they hope to repeat as NFC South champions. Starting 0-2 within the division would deliver a significant blow to that hope. Viewers should expect a hard-fought contest decided in the final minutes with the home team escaping with a victory.
Prediction: Falcons 37, Saints 34
— 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.