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New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview and Prediction

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

Despite the Saints’ two-game winning streak, their slim hopes for a wild card spot died before last week’s kickoff of their eventual home victory over Tampa Bay. Instead, New Orleans will spend the first day of 2017 trying to deny its archrivals a bye in the first round of the postseason. The Saints also can finish at .500 with a win in Atlanta.

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The Falcons are on a three-game winning streak. They wrapped up the NFC South title thanks to New Orleans’ win over Tampa Bay last week. However, Atlanta needs to beat the Saints to secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Otherwise, the Falcons will need losses by Seattle and Detroit to avoid playing on Wild Card Weekend.

Atlanta leads the all-time series against New Orleans 49-45 and is 25-22 in home games against the Saints. New Orleans swept the season series in 2015, but the Falcons took the most recent meeting, a 45-32 road victory in Week 3.

New Orleans at Atlanta

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 1 at 4:25 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Falcons -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Will Devonta Freeman run over the Saints again?

New Orleans has given up 98.9 rushing yards per game, which puts the Saints 12th in the NFL. They have allowed just one player to gain more than 100 yards on the ground against them this season.

Unfortunately, that player was none other than Freeman, Atlanta’s leading rusher. Besides piling up 152 rushing yards against New Orleans in Week 3, he also had 55 receiving yards and a touchdown catch.

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Was that spectacular performance a one-game anomaly? Freeman’s remarkable numbers helped the Falcons score 45 points. That also is the most that the Saints have allowed this season. Only one other opponent racked up more than 40 on the Black and Gold defense (Arizona, 41 in Week 15). However has scored 40 or more a total of five times. Which brings us to our next question…

2. Which high-powered offense will pile up more points?

This is a matchup of the two most prolific offenses in the NFL. The Falcons are the top scoring team, averaging 33.5 points per game, with the Saints following close behind at 29.5. New Orleans leads the league in total offense (422.9 ypg), while Atlanta is second (412.5). The two teams also are first (NO, 369) and second (ATL, 354) in first downs. The Saints are the No. 1 passing offense (315.5 ypg) with the Falcons coming in at third (293.4). And if that wasn’t enough similarity, Drew Brees is second in touchdowns passes with 35, while Matt Ryan is, you guessed it, just behind in third place (34).

It will be a complete shock if this game doesn’t feature a fair number of points. The question then becomes, can the Saints keep it close enough to give them a shot of finishing the season with a big upset on the road or will the Falcons win another lop-sided contest?

3. Cooling down Matt Ryan

Ryan has rebounded quite nicely from his struggles in 2015. As was referenced earlier, he’s third in the league with 34 touchdowns passes and in completion rate (69.5 percent). He leads his peers in QB rating (115.5), yards per pass attempt (9.3) and per completion (13.3).

New Orleans’ defense has proven to be vulnerable through the air. The Saints have allowed 270.4 passing yards per game, the third-highest total in the NFL. They have just nine interceptions (only five teams have fewer) and have given up 351 completions (tied for 10th-most).

Part of the problem has been extensive injuries in the secondary, as there are six defensive backs currently on injured reserve. Additionally, safety Kenny Vaccaro is serving a four-game suspension for violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. This does not bode well for a defense that’s facing a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Final Analysis

Few teams in the NFL have as much or more at stake in the last week of the regular season than the Falcons. A win over the Saints means only two wins are needed to go to the Super Bowl, with the first game guaranteed to be at home.

NFL Power Rankings: Falcons

If New Orleans was at home, the crowd could likely spur the Saints toward the upset. These two franchises have a heated rivalry that is underappreciated across the league. Both fan bases travel to the other’s venue in large numbers. However, with nothing but pride on the line in a road game, New Orleans comes up quite short in the category of motivation. Atlanta will not be denied an easier path to the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Falcons 33, Saints 24

— 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.