Saints can wrap up third straight NFC South title by getting even with the Falcons on their home turf
For the second time in three weeks, NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta will meet, this time on Thanksgiving night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This marks the second straight season the teams will play each on the holiday. The Saints won last year's Turkey Day meeting, 31-17.
New Orleans (9-2) can clinch the division title by beating the Falcons, something they weren't able to do earlier this season when Atlanta ambushed the Saints 26-9 in the Superdome in Week 10. That snapped New Orleans' six-game winning streak but the team has won its past two games both against NFC South foes.
This past Sunday, the Saints jumped out to an early 14-0 lead over Carolina and were up 31-18 late in the third quarter before the Panthers railed. After Carolina tied the game with a little more than nine minutes remaining, Drew Brees led another late fourth-quarter drive to set up Wil Lutz' 33-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired. New Orleans got an assist from Carolina kicker Joey Slye, who missed three kicks, including a 28-yard field goal that would have given the Panthers the lead with two minutes to play.
After knocking off the Saints, the Falcons won back-to-back games for the first time season with a victory over Carolina. But Atlanta wasn't able to maintain the momentum, falling at home to Tampa Bay last Sunday. The Buccaneers rattled off 18 straight points to break open a close game and went on to win 35-22 behind 446 yards of offense.
New Orleans at Atlanta
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Curtailing Michael Thomas
Last Sunday in Atlanta, the Falcons reverted to the defensive woes they were experiencing prior to their bye week. Jameis Winston looked like a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback against the Falcons, piling up 313 passing yards and three touchdowns. Chris Godwin torched Atlanta for 184 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches.
Pass defense has been an issue for the Falcons all season. They are giving up 266.4 yards per game through the air, which ranks 27th in the NFL. They also have surrendered 22 touchdown passes, a number surpassed by only four teams. Opponents have completed 68.4 percent of their pass attempts, tied for the fourth-highest percentage. Part of the blame falls on a pass rush that has mustered only 18 sacks, third-fewest in the league.
If Godwin could enjoy his most productive day against Atlanta, one must wonder what Thomas could do against the Falcons' secondary. He currently leads the NFL in targets (124), the average number of receptions per game (9.5) and average receiving yards per game (112.9). His six touchdowns are tied for seventh. If a wide receiver ever deserved consideration for MVP, then Thomas is making his case.
Despite the lopsided loss to the Falcons a couple of weeks ago, Thomas did his part. He caught 13 passes, the most in a game this season. His 152 receiving yards rank as his second-highest total so far this year. If Drew Brees can find anyone else who can draw some attention from the Falcons' defensive backs, Thomas should produce another dominant performance.
2. Protecting Drew Brees
The first meeting proved to be embarrassing for the Saints' offensive line and painful for Brees. The Falcons sacked Brees six times for 46 yards. The running game managed just 52 yards on 11 attempts. The offense committed six penalties for 50 yards. The linemen accounted for four penalties (holding, tripping and two false starts).
The mistakes continued against Carolina. The line was flagged three times, twice for holding and once for a false start, totaling 24 yards. Additionally, Carolina declined another holding call and one for an illegal shift. The good news: The Panthers got Brees down on the ground just twice for 11 yards.
3. Motivation for both teams
Multiple factors should spur the Saints toward victory. With a win, they would secure the NFC South title and the automatic playoff bid that goes with it. They find themselves in a tight race with San Francisco for the top seed in the playoffs. Additionally, the Falcons embarrassed the Saints in New Orleans earlier this month.
In contrast, why would the Falcons care about this game? They have been mathematically eliminated from any chance of winning the division. Their faint wild-card chances require winning their final five games plus hoping that both Green Bay and Minnesota lose all of theirs, and they'll still need help. Do they have any interest in playing spoiler and denying their Saints the opportunity to celebrate on the Falcons' home field?
It would seem that the Saints would be at a disadvantage by playing on the road during a short week. However, they have a tremendous amount at stake. Is there any chance of dismissing the Falcons and looking ahead to next week's showdown with San Francisco for the No. 1 seed in the NFC? That is highly unlikely after the embarrassing beating suffered against Atlanta less than three weeks ago.
In contrast, it appears that the Falcons' burst of competitiveness has ended. The reality of their postseason prospects has dawned on them. As frustrating as this season has been for the Falcons, letting a rival munch on turkey and don divisional championship hats on their home turf after a victory will worsen their plight.
Prediction: Saints 34, Falcons 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.