The New Orleans Saints needed overtime to fend off the Atlanta Falcons in a 43-37 shootout back in Week 3. But much has changed since Sept. 23, as the Saints get set to face the rival Falcons for the second time this season Thanksgiving night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans (9-1) has parlayed a league-best 38 points per game into nine consecutive victories and the NFL’s longest winning streak. The Saints' most recent conquests include ending the Rams’ perfect season with a 45-35 victory in Week 9, followed by blowout wins against the Bengals (51-14) and the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles (48-7).
Things have taken a turn for the worse for the Falcons (4-6), who have now dropped two games in a row after reeling off three consecutive wins. Their most recent defeat came in the form of a heartbreaking 22-19 home loss to the Cowboys on Sunday. Atlanta now finds itself in must-win mode, sitting in third place in the NFC South. The Falcons will likely need to run the table to have any chance of securing a playoff spot. That lofty endeavor begins on Thursday night, as the desperate Falcons attempt to spoil Thanksgiving for the red-hot Saints by exacting revenge with a huge upset victory.
The Falcons lead the all-time series against the Saints by a slight 52-47 margin. The Saints have won each of the last two games in the rivalry.
Atlanta at New Orleans
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 22 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -13
Three Things to Watch
1. A surging New Orleans pass defense
Matt Ryan led an all-out aerial assault against an easily exploitable Saints’ pass defense when these teams met back in Week 3. It resulted in a career-best outing for the former NFL MVP quarterback, who completed 74 percent of his passes for 374 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley also took advantage with a monster performance of his own (7 catches for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns).
While New Orleans still ranks just 27th in the NFL against the pass (280 ypg) heading into the Thanksgiving rematch, the Saints have been anything but vulnerable against opposing passing games of late. They have allowed just 154 passing yards per game and one TD pass over their last two games, tallying five interceptions and seven sacks in the process. Can the Saints keep it going against a high-powered passing attack that has already torched them once this season?
The Saints’ chief objective will be a difficult one — shut down the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones/Ridley connection. Jones leads the NFL with 1,158 receiving yards, and the elite wideout is currently in the midst of a streak that includes 100-plus yards in each of his last five contests, with a touchdown in three consecutive games. But Jones hasn’t had much luck finding the end zone against the Saints, registering just one touchdown catch in his last nine games against them. And Ridley may have trouble filling the void this time around after going relatively quiet since that breakout performance in Week 3.
2. Can the Falcons slow down the Saints offense?
They certainly didn’t accomplish that goal the first time, as New Orleans racked up 43 points and 534 yards against them. And much better defenses have tried and failed since that time. The good news is that the Atlanta defense, which allows 405 yards per game on average (29th in the NFL), could get a big boost on Thursday night if Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones is able to make his long-awaited return from injury. Jones has been particularly effective against the Saints in four career games, recording an impressive 38 tackles, five tackles for a loss and three interceptions. But even with Jones, it is still going to be a very tall order for the Falcons to contain the blazing Saints offense.
New Orleans has been virtually unstoppable on that side of the football over the last three weeks, averaging an NFL-best 514 yards and 48 points per game during that stretch. Drew Brees, who accounted for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns (2 rushing) in the Week 3 victory over the Falcons, continues to play at a nearly flawless level. And the same can be said for offensive standouts Michael Thomas (82 catches, 1,042 receiving yards, 8 TDs) and Alvin Kamara (1,185 all-purpose yards, 15 TDs). Mark Ingram, who was suspended for the first meeting, adds to an already difficult challenge for the Falcons' defense this time around.
3. Atlanta run game vs. New Orleans' run defense
Atlanta produced a season-low 48 rushing yards against the Saints in the first matchup, which was a big factor in the Falcons losing that game. They will most likely suffer the same fate if they fail to find some semblance of success with the run game on Thursday night. It will be paramount for Atlanta to control the clock and keep the Saints' potent offense off the field as much as possible to have a chance.
Of course, that is easier said than done, especially for an Atlanta run game that is averaging only 88.8 rushing yards per game (29th in the NFL) in the absence of star running back Devonta Freeman. That task is further compounded by a Saints run defense that allows only 77.9 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in the NFL). Atlanta running backs, Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith, will have their work cut out for them.
The Falcons are one of the few teams that have been able to give the Saints a run for their money this season. However, it took a career-best performance from Matt Ryan to make that possible. And these two teams have gone in vastly different directions since Week 3. Even if Atlanta plays the best game it can possibly play on Thursday night, it’s unlikely that it will be enough to pull off the Thanksgiving upset against the surging Saints on the road. New Orleans is simply on a different level right now.
Prediction: Saints 45, Falcons 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.