All roads lead to Atlanta. At least this week, anyway.
And here we are on the cusp of Saints-Falcons I: The 2011 Season, and boy am I ready for this matchup.
The Saints sit at 6-3 with a percentage point lead over the second place 5-3 Atlanta Falcons, and the winner will be in the driver's seat for the NFC South crown with six games remaining in the season for the Saints.
The Saints have dropped two straight road games, while the Falcons are riding a three-game winning streak.
The Saints say tomayto, and the Falcons say tomahto.
I say make the jump to see what my Hot Reads tell you must be done for the Saints to win this game.
** All (Saints AND Falcons fans) are also welcome to gather here for fun and friendly pre-pre-game chatter and balderdash. Let's get this party started. Let's light this candle. How else can we say we are ready for this game? **
I'm not sure how else I can say this, but if the offensive line cannot PROTECT DREW BREES, all is lost. The Empire, the Rebel Resistance, the Moon of Endor, the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, all of it. Even the Gungans of Naboo and the Dagobah system will be toast. He is the beginning and end of the Saints offense, and he's even a significant portion of the creamy filling in the middle. (Star Wars and Oreos - it must be late, and I must be hungry.)
The Falcons don't have a single awesome pass-rush sack specialist, nor have they racked up a bunch of sacks as a team. But the D-line appears to bring most of the pressure, and has recorded 12 of the team's 15 total sacks. DE John Abraham and DT Corey Peters are tied for the team lead with 3 each, and three other dudes have two sacks, I guess they'd better watch out for those guys.
What I'd Like To See: Drew Brees needs to have time to survey the field, find his man, and get the ball to him. Keep him clean, please. Blocking well for the running game will help this, too.
Checkdown # 1
Even though this game features two marquee quarterbacks with matinee-idol looks, it will be crucial to CONTROL THE RUNNING GAME, on both sides of the ball.
The Saints allow 119.7 rushing yards per game, often tackle poorly (especially at the second level), take bad angles and have poor run fits at times, and are susceptible to big runs. The Falcons average 119 rushing yards per game, with the lion's share of carries and yards going to Michael Turner (692 yards - that's 86.5 per game - along with 7 rushing TDs) - a big, bad wrecking ball of a runner with big-play ability, who has given the Saints absolute FITS.
The Saints average 126 rushing yards per game, and have a four-man committee that shares the load pretty evenly. They'll be facing a Falcons defense that only allows 96.5 yards per game.
What I'd Like To See: The Saints defense needs to find a way to limit Turner, keeping him from a big day overall, as well as keeping him from ripping off the big plays, as well. On the other side of the coin, the Saints don't necessarily need a huge running game, but an effective rushing attack that can successfully convert the short-yardage third down plays to keep the chains moving, as well as consistently show up throughout drives enough to allow play-action fakes to be believable.
Checkdown # 2
The Saints defense must make sure that they get DOWN AND OUT ON THIRD DOWN. With the Falcons returning to the ball-control offensive ways that they are built for for in their three-game winning streak, the Saints have to force punts often.
The Atlanta offense has converted 49 of 108 (45%) third-down plays on the season, while the Saints have allowed only 42 of 118 (35%) third-down conversions. Something's gotta give here, and I want it to be a massive third-down failure on the part of the Falcons offense.
What I'd Like To See: Early success by the Saints defense in stuffing the Falcons on third down - less than 25% in the first half (and less than 33% for the game) - that allows the Saints to take the lead and take the crowd right down and out of the game.
Playing on the road is generally a tough challenge, especially so for the Saints this year. In case you didn't know, the Saints are 2-3 away from the friendly confines of the Mercedes Benzzzzz Superdome XE Edition with leather seats.
A huge factor in order to win this game against a good opponent in hostile territory is that the Saints must WIN IN THE TURNOVER COLUMN.
The Saints have a -7 takeaway/giveaway total on the road (that's more than one per game - GAAA!), and a +1 total at home. Match that -6 overall total up with the relatively glittering +2 total for the Falcons and anyone can see that the Saints have their work cut out for them in this regard.
What I'd Like To See: The Saints positively SMOKE the Falcons in this category with no giveaways of their own and 3+ takeaways (2 INTs and a fumble recovery would be nice, but I'll take any combination) to help the Saints to an easy win. But I don't think that's likely. I think it'll take at least a net of zero giveaways/takeaways with an equal amount of points scored by each team on the turnovers for the Saints to have a chance at a win.