Despite losing Drew Brees three weeks ago, the Saints have continued their eight-game winning streak with ease, which included a 24-9 romp over the Falcons two weeks ago. That loss in New Orleans has been one of the few black marks on an impressive turnaround for the Falcons, which are 4-2 under Raheem Morris since firing Dan Quinn.
Taysom Hill has been a capable game manager in two starts for the Saints, with 27-of-39 passing for 311 yards and one interception while adding 20 rushing attempts for 93 yards and four touchdowns. Head coach Sean Payton didn't need him to do much last week against the Broncos, since they didn't have any healthy quarterbacks, but he has allowed the rest of the talent on the roster to carry the team to victory.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are coming off their best game of the season, a 43-6 rout of the Raiders. They held Las Vegas to a season-low 13 first downs while scoring on six of their final eight drives. Even without the injured Julio Jones and Todd Gurley, the offense has looked as good as ever this season.
With both teams on hot streaks — despite injuries to key players — this has the potential for another fierce rivalry game. The Falcons lead the series 53-50, with that edge entirely coming from home games, where they hold the advantage, 27-24. But the Saints have won five of the last six meetings.
New Orleans at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Falcons protect Matt Ryan?
New Orleans' pressure on Ryan has served as a key to defeating Atlanta in their 24 meetings over his 13 professional seasons. Two weeks ago in the Superdome, the Saints sacked Matt Ryan eight times for 36 yards. In the Saints' win at Atlanta last season, they dropped Ryan nine times for 53 yards. However, in the Falcons' victory in New Orleans in 2019, Ryan only went down once.
The number three stands out as the target for New Orleans' defense. During Ryan's career, when the Saints have sacked him three or more times, they have won all nine times. In contrast, when Atlanta has limited the sacks of Ryan to two or fewer, the Falcons have a record of 9-6 against New Orleans.
The Saints are averaging exactly 3.0 sacks per game this season, including 3.3 per game since their Week 6 bye. The Falcons have given up about as many sacks (2.5 per game), but Ryan has taken more than two sacks only twice this year: against New Orleans two weeks ago (8) and at Green Bay in Week 4 (4).
2. Will the Saints' ground assault continue?
During Drew Brees' absence, Sean Payton has relied much more on running the ball. In the Saints' first full game without their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, they rushed the ball 36 times for 166 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons. Last week at Denver, they had 44 attempts for 229 yards and four touchdowns. Those are their two highest single-game rushing yardage totals this season.
Maintaining a credible running attack has served as a harbinger of success for New Orleans all season, with 21 carries and 123 yards as targets. When the Saints ran the ball 21 times or more in a game, they won all nine times. They lost both times they had 20 or few rushing attempts. When they have exceeded 122 yards on the ground, they have won all five times but have a record of 4-2 below that amount.
Opponents' rushing attacks have gashed the Falcons' defense during Atlanta's defeats, but they've been able to win when they stop the run. When the Falcons allowed four or more yards per carry, they have lost five out of seven times. However, if they held opponents under four yards per rushing attempt, the Falcons are 2-2.
3. Are the Falcons capable of forcing turnovers?
Atlanta needs to take the ball away to boost its prospects for an upset. The Falcons have picked off at least one pass in five contests, winning four of those. They are tied for fifth in the NFL for recovering opponents' fumbles with eight. However, three of those occurred in the loss in Dallas and four came in Las Vegas last week.
The Falcons will have a tough time taking away the ball since the Saints have been protecting it well. The Saints' three quarterbacks have combined to throw just four interceptions, tied for the second-lowest figure in the league. In total, the Saints have turned over the ball more than once in only two games, with two fumbles at Tampa Bay and two more against San Francisco.
Considering the Saints' increased reliance on the ground attack, the Falcons might have some opportunity to force fumbles. The Saints are tied with the Eagles for most total fumbles in the league with 21, although they've lost possession just seven times. Taysom Hill especially has shown a tendency to have the ball punched out of his arms as he strives for extra yards on the ground.
The Saints find themselves in the driver's seat of the NFC. In their division, they hold a 2.5-game advantage and the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tampa Bay. They only need two more victories to win the division. In the entire conference, they hold a one-game lead over the Packers and Seahawks. The top seed in the NFC playoffs is within reach if they can avoid stumbling down the stretch.
The Falcons are clinging to a flimsy chance of winning the division by having a superior record against common opponents. That would require winning their final five games and hoping that the Saints drop their last five. But more realistically, they will still need a lot of help just to grab the final wild-card berth.
Prediction: Saints 27, 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.