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New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview and Prediction


The New Orleans Saints will get together with the Atlanta Falcons for the second time in less than a month when the two NFC South foes square off at 8:20 p.m. ET on the NFL Network. The Falcons (10-1) will not only be looking to avenge a Week 10 loss to these Saints, their only defeat so far this season, they also could sew up the division crown with a win and a loss by Tampa Bay in Denver on Sunday. Meanwhile the Saints (5-6) saw their three-game winning streak come to an end with a 31-21 home loss to San Francisco last week, and really need a second win over the Falcons to keep their postseason hopes alive.

When the New Orleans Saints have the ball:
New Orleans is eighth in the NFL in total offense (381.9 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense at 28 points per game. The offense begins and ends with quarterback Drew Brees, who leads the league with 31 touchdown passes and is fourth in passing yards (3,333). The Saints are 27th in rushing offense but have had more success recently, including the 148 yards they gained in their Week 10 win over the Falcons. Brees’ favorite targets in the passing game are wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, along with tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. Sproles didn’t play in the first game against Atlanta because of a hand injury, but Colston, Moore and Graham combined for 17 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Graham (7-146-2) did the majority of the damage and has caught at least one touchdown in each of his last four games against the Falcons. The Saints also have done a good job of protecting the ball as they have turned it over a total of 14 times, including only three lost fumbles.

Atlanta’s defense is 14th overall (344.9 ypg) and has been more effective, statistically speaking, against the pass compared to stopping the run. The Falcons are 13th in the league against the pass and they held Drew Brees to 298 yards through the air back in Week 10. However, they are 22nd against the run, as evidenced by the 148 yards the Saints’ 27th-ranked rushing offense gained on them the first time they played. That said, the Falcons are coming off of last week’s performance in which they limited Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin to just 50 yards rushing on 21 carries. The Falcons have registered 26 sacks and 19 turnovers this season, including an interception of Brees in their first meeting.

When the Atlanta Falcons have the ball:
Atlanta is sixth in the league in total offense at 385.9 yards per game with the majority of this coming via the pass. The Falcons’ offense, led by Matt Ryan, is second in passing (297.6 ypg), while Ryan himself is second in yards (3,425) and completion percentage (68.5). The Falcons are only 28th in the league in rushing offense, something painfully evident when they gained just 46 yards against the Saints’ rushing defense, which ranks dead last in that category. A big reason why the Falcons have been so productive through the air is they have three pass-catchers who rank among the top 25 in both receptions and yards. Wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, along with tight end Tony Gonzalez have combined for 189 receptions, 2,598 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Jones was hampered by an ankle injury in the Week 10 loss, and his big-play ability (16.7 ypc, 274 yards after catch) could be a key factor this time around. The Falcons are eighth in scoring at 26.7 points per game and have turned the ball over 16 times, 13 of them being interceptions thrown by Ryan. Seven of these picks have come in the last three games, including one against the Saints in Week 10.

New Orleans has had plenty of issues on defense, as the Saints rank last in the league in total yards (454.8 ypg) and rushing yards (156.5 ypg) allowed. They did hold the Falcons to only 46 yards on the ground the first time around, but Ryan and company still gained 411 yards through the air and scored 27 points, albeit in a loss. The Saints are giving up nearly 300 yards passing per game and haven’t been able to generate or capitalize on turnovers (8 INTs, 8 fumbles) as much this season as in years past. The Saints have 24 quarterback sacks so far, while the Falcons have done a decent job keeping Ryan (21 sacks allowed) upright. The Saints had just one sack and one interception in their Week 10 win over the Falcons.

Key Factor:
Even though Ryan is just 2-6 against the Saints in his career, he is 31-4 overall in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta is no stranger to playing close games, as eight have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Falcons’ only loss among these contests and only defeat so far came courtesy of the Saints, 31-27, on Nov. 11. Not only was this game played in New Orleans, Atlanta’s offense was without Jones, who suffered a leg injury, for a good part of the game. Jones is coming off of a season-high 147 yards last week and the Falcons are much more dangerous when he is on the field with White and Gonzalez. Also look for the Falcons to run the ball more effectively than they did in the first meeting by utilizing both Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield. The Falcons’ secondary is pretty banged up, but I think they have enough firepower to protect their home turf and get one step closer to wresting the division crown away from the Saints.

Falcons 34, Saints 28