26-23. 17-14. 24-27. 26-23. 35-27.
What do they tell us? They tell us that we're probably in for another close game tonight as the Saints and Falcons get after each other for the second time this season, with both a possible playoff berth and supremacy of the NFC South still in play.
Seems like it will take some extra special Hot Reads to get us through this big game. And that's exactly what I've got waiting for you right after the jump.
** Let's use this space for our pre-pre-pre-game open thread to amp up for tonight's game. Some of us might be off work today and have lots of time to kill before the game. Are you having Happy Holidays so far? Did you get any new Saints gear yesterday? **
Drew Brees has put up MVP-caliber numbers this year, and he wouldn't be doing nearly as well had he spent the season running for his life. As always, PROTECTING BREES has to be the top priority on offense.
Back in November, the line and schemes worked well, as Brees was only hit twice and not sacked at all by Atlanta, even though the running game was a complete non-factor (16 carries, 41 yards) and the Saints threw the ball 43 times.
What I'd Like To See: More of the same from Week 10. Give Brees the protection he needs to keep the offense humming along to victory. Let's keep him sack-free, on his feet, and off the ground (especially out of the clutches of John Abraham, their leading sacker). Heck, maybe he can even sway a few final undecided MVP voters along the way.
Checkdown # 1
Based on what we saw from the running game in the last meeting (see above), the Saints definitely need to RUN MORE AND RUN BETTER.
Since that game (four straight wins), the Saints have run for 205, 100, 114, and 161 yards. Further, the Saints are 10-0 this season when they run for 100 or more yards. For those of you keeping score, that'd make it a 1-3 record when rushing for less than 100 yards. Need I say more?
What I'd Like To See: Mo' better running than they achieved in Week 10. The Falcons give up just a shade under 97 yards per game, so it won't be easy, but I think they'll need at least 30 attempts and 125+ yards. I'd like to see it early and often to keep the Falcons off-balance, but I also wouldn't mind if most of the carries came at the end as they control the clock to win the game.
Checkdown # 2
The Saints have been very effective on third down this year (converting nearly 55%), but last time, the Falcons held them to a pitiful 31% conversion rate (4 of 13). This time, a THIRD DOWN TURNAROUND is in order. They absolutely cannot settle for another five Thomas Morstead punts and four fourth-down field goal attempts following way too many failed third downs.
What I'd Like To See: At least 60% success on third downs tonight. Put up or go home. It's that simple.
PUT THE FUN BACK IN THE FUNDAMENTALS OF TACKLING, please. Big chunks of yardage have been given up this season by poor tackling on the part of the Saints (well, that and leaving players wide open in the middle of or down the field). Going for the big hit with the shoulder, trying for the strip, and going low without wrapping up have been just some of the ways the defense has had me screaming at the TV this year as it would take three or more players' individual attempts to finally bring ball carriers down 15-20 yards after the initial contact. All this YAC makes me GAG.
What I'd Like To See: Saint defenders getting to Falcon ball carriers quickly and bringing them down cleanly with good technique. See what you hit, wrap up, and be sure to lift/drive through the ball carrier. Watch their hips - they can't go anywhere without them. If you are the first to arrive, don't go for the hit or strip, let the next guy do that once you have secured the ball carrier and are dragging him down. It will save yardage and my voice.
Bonus Hot Read
Back in Friday's Game Predictions Thread, I projected a high-scoring close game. But what didn't make it into my comment there was my sense that it's going to come down to a make or break play on special teams, so the Saints must Be Special On Special Teams.
My crystal ball doesn't quite tell me exactly how it will shake down, but something on special teams will make the difference in tonight's game.
What I'd Like To See: The Saints to be the ones who make that special play break their way. Whether it's a big stop that keeps the Falcons from getting points, a takeaway on a return that snags an extra possession and maybe a short field for the Saints, a big return (maybe for a score), a successful "roxy-roxy" play, or whatever. They just need to end up on the right side of whatever this big play ends up being.
* * *
That's it folks. Now tell me what you think. Right on, or way off? What are your Hot Reads? I'm glad to have the day off, but I'm also dreading how long the day is going to feel while waiting for the game to start...