NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (9-3) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (7-5)
KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, TV: NBC, NFLN, Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth, Heather Cox (field reporter.
SERIES HISTORY: 96th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 50-45. Atlanta has won the last two meetings, including the last one, a 38-32 triumph in the Georgia Dome in the 2016 regular-season finale. The Falcons beat the Saints, 27-20, in an NFC wild-card playoff game in 1991, and the Saints beat the Falcons, 23-3, in 2006 when the Superdome reopened a year after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is 16-8 since Sean Payton took over as head coach.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This is a big-league duel, as always, and each team is trying to establish itself as a legitimate playoff powerhouse down the stretch. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have faced one other 17 times. Brees is 10-7 in those matchups. The Falcons beat the Saints twice last season. The Saints won twice in 2015 and the Falcons won twice in 2014.
It’s usually a high-scoring affair. Last season, the Falcons won 45-32 in New Orleans and 38-32 in Atlanta. “Drew is unbelievable,” Ryan said. “He’s been so consistent for the 10 years that I’ve been here.”
The Saints are now relying more on running backs Mark Ingram II and rookie Alvin Kamara. Ingram and Kamara, Kamara and Ingram. The one-two punch of the Saints’ running backs has been their biggest strength this season and they will look to utilize both in the running game and the passing game, assuming Ingram’s sore toe doesn’t sideline him. Don’t be surprised if the defense plays a lot of zone to avoid the big play and force the Falcons to be patient on offense.
However, Brees is still lethal. He has completed 291-of-407 passes for 3,298 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a passer rating of 104.2.
The Falcons’ offense must get back on track in this game. They did not score a touchdown for the first time in 30 games against Minnesota and Ryan was held to 173 yards passing, his lowest total since throwing for 172 against Seattle in 2013. The Saints’ defense is led by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 10 sacks. Also, Sheldon Rankins, who plays next to Jordan, is having a fine season. Jordan and Rankins will go against Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder and right guard Wes Schweitzer.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Saints CBs vs. Falcons WRs. The Falcons have one of the most explosive receiving corps in the NFL and the Saints have been beaten up at cornerback. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel will test the corners, especially if top cover man Marshon Lattimore is unable to return after a two-game absence due to an ankle injury.
–Saints WRs vs. Falcons DBs. Historically, Saints QB Drew Brees has had a lot of success against the Falcons’ secondary, but other than Michael Thomas, the Saints’ receivers have not been consistently effective this season. Brees will have to have some success against the No. 7 pass defense if New Orleans is going to be balanced on offense.
–Saints LBs vs. Falcons RBs. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have been dangerous dual threats, just like Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara, and New Orleans no longer has its fastest linebacker since Alex Anzalone went on injured reserve.
–Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Falcons LBs De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley. These linebackers play well in space, but Kamara is a tough target. Known nominally as a third-round pick, this sensational rookie rushed for 606 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 59 passes for 614 yards and four touchdowns. Campbell is third on the team in tackles with 74. Riley, who is faster, could get some action in order to play against the Saints’ screens.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Falcons guard Ben Garland. He lost the battle for the starting right guard spot to Wes Schweitzer in the exhibition season. He will make his first NFL start against the Saints and has played in 36 games on the offensive and defensive lines. A key to the Saints’ success will be whether they can disrupt Matt Ryan’s timing in the Falcons’ passing game. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has 10 sacks and seven passes defensed, and he is the Saints defender most capable of bothering Ryan. In addition to sacks and getting his hands on passes, Jordan can be effective by pressuring Ryan.
FAST FACTS: Saints QB Drew Brees has 6,127 career completions and surpassed Peyton Manning (6,125) for 2nd most all-time. He aims for seventh consecutive game against Atlanta with at least 300 yards passing. RB Mark Ingram II leads NFL with 9 TDs rushing. RB Alvin Kamara is third rookie in NFL history with at least 600 yards rushing (606) and 600 yards receiving (614). He ranks 4th in NFL with 1,220 yards from scrimmage. DE Cameron Jordan is one of three in NFL with at least 10 sacks (10) and 50 tackles (52). Vonn Bell is only NFL safety with at least 60 tackles ((61) and three sacks (3.5) … Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has 1,970 yards passing (328.3 per game), 14 TDs and 1 INT for 115.4 rating in last six meetings with Saints. WR Julio Jones leads NFC with 1,063 yards receiving. LB Vic Beasley Jr. had sack in last game vs. NO. LB Deion Jones has 15 tackles, 5 PD & 90-yard INT-TD in 2 career games vs. NO. Has 36 tackles (9 per game) in past 4 vs. division. S Keanu Neal had FF in last meeting. Jones (96) & Neal (91) are 1 of 3 pairs of teammates in NFL with 90+ tackles each. Rookie DE Takkarist McKinley aims for 4th in row with sack. Tied for 1st among NFC rookies with 5 sacks.
PREDICTION: A classic flip-a-coin game, but the Falcons will further tighten things up heading down the home stretch.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 30-27