If you are in attendance Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, you might see the following sign:
For Sale: Used Records.
In case you haven't heard, Drew Brees needs only 305 yards to break Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for most passing yardage in a single season. Drew can also add to his own personal record of 34 consecutive games with 20 or more completions, and his record of 11 300-yard passing outings (and seven 350 yard or more passing outings) in a regular season. He can also continue his streak of 41 consecutive games with a passing touchdown, moving ever closer to the Johnny Unitas record of 47. Also up for grabs is the single season completion percentage record - Drew sits at 71.5%, though he already holds the record at 70.6% set in 2009.
The nation will be tuned in as this game will have playoff implications for both teams. Hopefully, the 50 Associated Press voters who decide who wins the NFL MVP will be paying attention.
The Saints offense is averaging almost 457 yards per game and is on pace to break the most yardage in a season record set by the 2000 St. Louis Rams. The Saints average 40+ points at home and are without a loss in the Superdome this year and Drew Brees is averaging 331 passing yards per game, oh and did I mention how well the Saints have played in "prime time" this year? (Psst! They're 3-1!!)
While Drew Brees looks to be "in the zone" coming into this game, the Falcons have the NFL schedule makers to thank for four extra days to prepare. This is the second time in the last month the Saints have to play an opponent coming off a Thursday night game with the benefit of 96 hours to rest and get a leg up with a finely-tuned game plan. Like the Saints, Atlanta put up 40+ points in their last contest and appear to be synchronized on offense. It should make for a fun game to watch.
It's not often the rematch between divisional opponents follows the same script as the previous contest. The rosters look different due to injury, some players have progressed while others wear down or regress, schemes evolve or fall apart, and the other guys have a better idea of what will or won't be successful. With that taken into consideration, the Saints/Falcons rivalry is one of the exceptions to the rule. Over the past few years (since Atlanta has had their current head coach and QB duo), almost every game has been decided by a field goal or the success/failure of the last possession. I don't see much that leads me to believe this game will be any different.
I can see this game taking one of two courses. The first is the scenario mentioned above being decided in the closing minutes. The second scenario would be a Saints win by multiple scores, but would require Gregg Williams and the Saints defense to play much better than they did in the first meeting back in November. I can easily see the Saints defense frustrating Michael Turner, and I can easily see the production of the Saints offense forcing Atlanta away from playing "ball control" and throwing the ball in an effort to keep pace. The only question is how effective the Saints secondary and pass rush will be.
Has the Saints defense improved over the past month? I'd like to think so - I can point to the run defense as prime example. My question is how Gregg Williams plans to cover Harry Douglas with a healthy Julio Jones opposite of Roddy White - Julio looks to be dangerous as ever over the last two weeks and I'd love nothing more than to see him having a career arc similar to Donte' "Hammy" Stallworth. A sub-question to my first question is how creative the blitz will be because sometimes less is more and I'd rather have five or six defenders in coverage than see an endless loop of seven-man blitzes that don't get home. About the only thing I don't need to question is the noise the Who Dat Nation will create when Matt Ryan is under center.
On offense, in spite of the remarkable streak Drew has been on over the last five weeks, I wonder how successful the Saints rushing attack will be against the Falcons front seven. Atlanta has a great group of LBs - perhaps the best in the division, considering the injuries Carolina incurred - and they are very good in run support and covering the short pass. Drew has shown he can nickel and dime them year after year and move the ball methodically, but it would sure help if the Saints are able to get their running game going early to take pressure off Drew.
As is par for the course in this rivalry, this will be a very hard-fought, physical battle. I wish for both teams to come away from Monday's game in good health. The NFL has done a great job scheduling divisional games during the last few weeks, but I do worry about injuries from a death match with a nemesis this close to the postseason.
I look for Atlanta to start this game employing the same formula that has given them success over the past few seasons: run Michael Turner, open up the passing game with checkdowns to the TE, RB, and slot WR, and take the occasional deep shot to Jones/White. How tempting will it be for the Falcons to run a "hurry-up" offense and recreate the success they had against the Saints secondary in November? Or put another way, how soon will the Saints offense force them to do so? How successfully can the Falcons run their two-minute drill with the crowd noise?
We have to wait until Monday to find out, but I believe this game will look familiar until the end of the third quarter. I think that is the point that the Saints begin to gain separation. Matt Ryan is inaccurate with his deep ball. The Superdome WILL be loud enough to register on the seismograph. Those blitzes Gregg Williams loves to send might not result in a sack, but coupled with the noise will pressure Ryan enough to make a mistake the Saints don't let slip through their hands. The Saints will get a multiple-score lead, and you'll see the Saints run their picture perfect "four-minute offense", taking a page out of Atlanta's playbook and keeping that Falcons offense on the sideline as they consume the game clock in a 34 - 24 victory.
1. Saints - 32.6 points per game, 457 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 55% 3rd down conversion, 32:10 time of possession, -3 turnover margin
13. Falcons - 24.4 PPG, 366 YPG, 5.5 YPP, 43% 3rd down, 32:23 TOP, +5 turnovers
1. Saints - 331 YPG, 8.2 yards per attempt, 71.5% completion, 37 TDs, 11 INTs, (60) 20+ yard completions, 23 sacks allowed, 109.0 QB rating
9. Falcons - 256 YPG, 7.3 YPA, 60.9% completion, 26 TDs, 12 INTs, (49) 20+ yard completions, 26 sacks allowed, 90.6 QB rating
8. Saints - 125 YPG, 4.7 yards per carry, 14 TDs, 3 fumbles lost, (12) 20+ yard rushes
18. Falcons - 110 YPG, 3.9 YPC, 11 TDs, 3 fumbles lost, (9) 20+ yard rushes
9. Falcons - 20.1 PPG, 327 YPG, 5.4 YPP, 41% 3rd down conversions allowed, 16 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries
24. Saints - 21.9 PPG, 366 YPG, 5.8 YPP, 33% 3rd down conversions allowed, 18 FFs, 5 FRs
17. Falcons - 231 YPG, 7.2 YPA, 60.1% completion, 19 TDs, 14 INTs, (49) 20+ yard completions allowed, 30 sacks, 83.3 opposing QB rating
28. Saints - 256 YPG, 7.1 YPA, 56.9% completion, 22 TDs, 8 INTs, (42) 20+ yard completions, 31 sacks, 86.4 opposing QB rating
4. Falcons - 97 YPG, 4.0 YPC, 9 TDs, (5) 20+ yard rushes allowed
13. Saints - 110 YPG, 4.9 YPC, 10 TDs, (12) 20+ yard rushes allowed
Overall Statistical Comparison: All things considered, what stands out the most are two things. First, the Saints are more explosive on offense (20+ yard plays). Secondly, they have a higher QB rating differential (22.4 to the Falcons 7.3). Both teams dominate in time of possession. The Falcons give up less yardage, but they score less and accumulate less yards on offense. Simply put, most games the Falcons play are close, so the opponent isn't putting up chunks of yards while Atlanta plays prevent defense. Atlanta's version of prevent defense is their offense.
The Saints have more success running the ball, while the Falcons have more success defending the run. Both will go a long way to keeping this game close, but the difference will be the accuracy of Drew Brees that will lead to more explosive plays, more third down conversions, and more scores. Both teams may have the same amount of scoring drives, but the Saints will have more touchdowns because they are more efficient on offense and third down defense.