The New Orleans Saints are on the verge of clinching an unlikely wild-card berth, but to do so, they'll have to do something Sunday that they failed to do in November: beat the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints (8-8) will need another break — namely the 49ers losing on the road to the Rams — but New Orleans could return to the postseason despite cycling through four quarterbacks and ranking 29th in total offense.
The Saints pieced together a victory last week to keep their postseason hopes alive, although no one should expect to see much of it on a season highlight compilation. Taysom Hill turned an adequate yet unspectacular performance, and New Orleans' defense once again carried the team to a victory over the Panthers.
Last Sunday in Buffalo, the Falcons (7-9) were also desperately clinging to faint hopes of grabbing the final NFL playoff spot. They took a one-point lead into the locker room but Devin Singletary scored a touchdown in each of the last two quarters while the Bills shut out the Falcons. Thus, Atlanta will take the field in the regular-season finale with nothing more than pride and spite available as motivations.
The Falcons lead this series, 54-51, with most of that edge coming from Atlanta's 27-25 mark at home. The Falcons won the meeting earlier this season in the Superdome, 27-25, although the Saints won five of the six meetings in the three prior seasons.
New Orleans (8-8) at Atlanta (7-9)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 9 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints continue their defensive dominance?
The New Orleans defense has looked awfully stingy in the last four games. They have allowed eight points per game on average. They have allowed only two touchdowns, one each to Miami and to Carolina. They have recorded 17 sacks during that span, raising their rank to seventh in the league with 43 sacks for the season.
Cameron Jordan's resurgence has boosted the defense's performances. Despite not recording his first sack until Week 7, he leads the Saints with 11.5 this season. He is also tied for the team lead with forced fumbles. He ranks second behind Demario Davis with 12 tackles for a loss.
Notably, opponents have been pressuring Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan throughout the season. He has been sacked 37 times in 16 games, tied for 13th most in the NFL, and was sacked at least twice in 10 contests. Atlanta's offensive line ranks 27th in ESPN's pass block win percentage at just 54 percent.
2. Saints' rushing attack vs. Falcons' rushing defense
With the frequent changes at the quarterback position and season-long absence of wide receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints have needed more production from their running game. However, the recent results have been lacking with an average of 72.3 yards per game.
Alvin Kamara remains the Saints' most potent threat to run the ball. However, he has exceeded 90 yards on the ground only twice in the 13 games which he has played. After returning from an injury, he accumulated 120 yards against the Jets. Then, in the past three weeks, he has had between 11 and 13 carries per game for an average of just 34 yards per contest.
Hill's rushing plays have increased the past few weeks. He has rushed 11 or 12 times in his last four games. He has averaged 63 yards on the ground per game. He led the team in rushing in three of their five most recent games despite not playing in one of those.
Atlanta's rushing defense ranks among the weakest in the NFL. The crew collectively has allowed 127.9 yards per game, which ranks 26th overall. They've also permitted 19 rushing touchdowns (tied for 27th). Opponents have picked up 133 first downs by running the ball, a total that is surpassed by just one team (Chargers, 135).
3. How many of the Falcons will sit out this game?
The Falcons have been eliminated from postseason consideration. Therefore, their starters are more likely to miss this game. Head coach Arthur Smith may want to see younger players in action. Some starters, especially veterans, may suddenly develop suspicious injuries in order to ride the bench.
Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is listed as questionable due to a hamstring problem. He has played in all 16 contests. He started all but one of those and leads the team in catches (66) and receiving yards (1,018). Of note, he has a chance to break Mike Ditka's 60-year old rookie tight end record of 1,076 yards, although he reached that in a 14-game season.
Calvin Ridley will not return to close out the season. He has not played since Week 7 since being placed on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list after announcing he was taking a break from the game to focus on his mental health. Despite appearing in only five games, he remains fifth on the team in both receptions (31) and receiving yards (281).
Atlanta's offensive line might be lacking some members too. Rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield is listed as questionable, while reserve tackle Jason Spriggs was placed on the Reserve/COVID 19 list on Dec. 30.
The Saints need to focus on the Falcons. They cannot let themselves be distracted by how the 49ers are faring in Los Angeles. Both games will start at the same time, so the Saints will still be in playoff contention going in this game. The question is whether the Saints will receive any updates from that other game during their own.
The Falcons have only one source of motivation left heading into this game. They can end the Saints' quest to reach the playoffs. How much this underrated rivalry matters to the current Falcons will play a significant role in their level of effort and interest in winning.
Prediction: Saints 23, Falcons 13
— 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.