With just four games left in the regular season, New Orleans is two games up on Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. The Saints (9-3) finished off a season sweep of the Panthers with a 31-21 win at home last Sunday, while the Falcons (7-5) were held without a touchdown in a 14-9 home loss to Minnesota.
New Orleans is a perfect 3-0 in divisional play, but this will be the first of two meetings with Atlanta in the next three weeks. The Falcons have struggled to establish a distinct home-field advantage in brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as they are just 3-3 there. The Saints meanwhile are 3-2 on the road.
Atlanta leads the all-time series 51-45 as the teams have alternated season sweeps over the past four seasons – Falcons winning both games in 2014 and ’16, New Orleans doing the same in 2013 and ’15.
New Orleans at Atlanta
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 7 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC/NFL Network
Spread: New Orleans -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Atlanta find its offensive footing?
The Falcons have flashed some glimpses of their high-powered offense from the previous season. However, they have sputtered a handful of times as well and really haven’t looked like the explosive unit from 2016. Atlanta has scored 17 points or fewer in five contests, including last week’s 14-9 loss to Minnesota that featured just three field goals for the home team. Not surprising, the Falcons are 0-5 in games where they don’t score a lot of points.
Fair or not, much of the blame, and the burden for these next four games, falls on Matt Ryan (above, right). The 2016 MVP has seen his numbers take a dip this season and when he’s posted a passer rating of lower than 100 Atlanta is just 1-5. When he’s thrown for at least 250 yards, the Falcons are 5-1, but 2-4 if he finishes under that mark. So it may be simplistic to say as Ryan goes so do the Falcons, but he definitely needs to start playing more like the MVP he was last season or the defending NFC champions may not even make it back to the postseason.
2. How much will the short week affect the Saints?
New Orleans played in the late afternoon window on Sunday and is tasked with having to travel for this Thursday night matchup. That leaves little time to recuperate from nagging injuries and to implement a game plan.
The Saints’ defensive backfield especially could have benefitted from some extra downtime. Sensational rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has missed the past two weeks with an ankle injury. Safety Marcus Williams also did not play on Sunday due to a groin injury.
Will familiarity due to two annual contests against the Falcons help speed up scouting and preparation?
3. Are the Falcons capable of throwing down some speed bumps in front of the Saints’ rushing attack?
The key to slowing down New Orleans’ offense is to take away the run-pass balance. Drew Brees has not needed to carry this offense thanks to the emergence of the NFL’s most productive running back tandem.
Mark Ingram has battered defenses since Week 2. Fourth in the league with 922 rushing yards, Ingram has four 100-yard efforts and is averaging a team-best 76.8 yards per game on the ground. He’s also tops in the NFL with nine rushing touchdowns, all of those coming since the Saints’ Week 5 bye (eight games). In New Orleans three losses thus far, Ingram has recorded a total of 100 rushing yards. In the nine wins that number jumps to 91.3.
While Ingram is the Saints’ leading ground gainer, Alvin Kamara has burst on the scene as one of the league’s most dynamic and explosive playmakers. Besides averaging seven yards per carry and currently sitting 17th in rushing, Kamara is averaging slightly more yards per game as a receiver (51.2 vs 50.5). He leads the team with four touchdown catches and his 11 total touchdowns are tied with Todd Gurley for the most in the NFL.
Atlanta’s defense has had mixed results against the run this season. The Falcons have held four teams under 100 rushing yards and are 4-0 in those games. However, they also have allowed a player to run for at least 70 yards on six different occasions and are just 1-5 in those contests. Twice a quarterback has been the player to gash Atlanta on the ground.
While the Falcons won’t have to worry about Brees picking up big gains with his legs, they will have their hands full trying to slow down Ingram and Kamara, who are basically doing what Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman did for Atlanta’s offense last season.
Forget about defending their conference crown, Atlanta needs a win on Thursday if it wants a realistic shot at repeating as NFC South champions. The Falcons already trail the Saints by two games with just four remaining. A loss at home would give New Orleans a three-game cushion and 4-0 record in divisional play. Atlanta would need to win out and hope the Saints drop their last three to bring any tiebreakers into play.
The short turnaround will likely result in a sluggish and sloppy start, but it’s the team that makes the right adjustments that will win. The sense of desperation over postseason possibilities slipping away will spur the Falcons through the fourth quarter. But in the end, one team takes a step closer to the playoffs while another falls farther behind the pack.
Prediction: Saints 30, Falcons 27
— 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.