The New Orleans Saints face their bitter rival, the Atlanta Falcons, for the second time in less than three weeks and the 98th time in the series history between the two teams. The Saints lost a controversial game on a Thursday night in Atlanta on December 7th, by a 20-17 score. During that game New Orleans lost their sensational rookie running back Alvin Kamara to a concussion on the game's first series, a loss that severely limited their offensive production. The Saints also lost starters Kenny Vaccaro, A.J. Klein, Trey Hendrickson on defense and offensive starters Mark Ingam, Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, and Senio Kelemete were banged up during the game, but were still in a position to win if not for some mistakes at the end and some highly questionable officiating.
Atlanta leads the series between the two, 52-45, including a 25-23 edge in games played at New Orleans. With the possible exception of the 1991 Wild Card playoff game played between the two, a 27-20 Atlanta victory, this may very well be the most important game in the long and hated history of the Saints-Falcons rivalry. New Orleans still sits atop of the NFC South division with a 10-4 record, and could clinch the division title with a win here and a Carolina Panthers loss to Tampa Bay. The Falcons are currently the 6th seed in the NFC, but a victory against the Saints would vault them to the top of the division.
The Saints top ranked offense could be without one of the league's most consistent weapons. Leading wideout Michael Thomas, who has 94 receptions for 1,085 yards and 5 touchdowns for the year, was a late week addition to the injury report and is listed as questionable for the game with a hamstring injury. Thomas had 10 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the team's first meeting, and a combined 17 receptions for 237 yards and two scores in two meetings against Atlanta a year ago. Despite the NFL's 4th ranked passing game, the Saints have gotten little production outside of Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram. Ted Ginn has had the best season of his career, but any receiving threat outside of him has been nonexistent. The lack of diversity has affected New Orleans the most on 3rd downs, where the team's 37.9% conversion rate ranks just 19th in the league. The Saints have been even worse than that over the last two games, going 3 for 10 against both Atlanta and the New York Jets. Having Kamara, one of the best all-purpose weapons in the league, back in the lineup will certainly help against the Falcons 9th ranked defense. Atlanta cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant have had a difficult time matching up with Michael Thomas, but if he is out of the lineup then Saints receivers Ginn, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead, or Tommylee Lewis must provide a legitimate threat to prevent the Falcons from stacking the line against the run and allowing Kamara more space to maneuver as a receiver. New Orleans averages 135 yards rushing per game, good for 5th in the league, but ran for just 50 yards against Atlanta two weeks ago. Mark Ingram has already rushed for a career high 1,045 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging over 5 yards per rush. Kamara has been the perfect backfield compliment, adding 652 yards on the ground and 7 rushing scores while averaging 6.6 yards per carry and adding 68 receptions for 684 yards and five more scores. The Saints starting offensive line looks to be back intact for this rematch, after guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford have both missed time with injuries in the last two games. New Orleans must find a way to contain Atlanta star linebacker Deion Jones, who has made game-changing plays in each of the last 3 matchups between the teams.
The Atlanta Falcons answer the Saints "Big Three" offensive stars with 3 superior talents of their own. Wide receiver Julio Jones (76 catches, 1,215 yards and 3 touchdowns) is widely considered to be one of the best receivers in the league, and running backs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman are as lethal a backfield combination as there is in the league outside of New Orleans. Saints linebackers and safeties have struggled all year to contain opposing running backs, and rank 18th against the run. They have been unable to match up with either Freeman or Coleman in any of the last three games between the teams, and the Saints were dealt two big blows defensively when linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro were placed on season ending injured reserve, further limiting the unit's depth and athleticism. The Saints must find a way to limit the damage that these two backs can cause if they have any chance at defensive success. New Orleans is led up front by pro bowl end Cam Jordan, who leads the team with 10 of it's 35 sacks. The Saints have been one of the most blitz heavy defenses in the league this season, and may look to bring extra rushers against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw 3 interceptions against the New Orleans in their last meeting. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore held his own against Julio Jones in the team's first meeting. Jones finished with 98 yards on five catches, but was targeted 11 times, and Lattimore was still hobbled with an injured ankle. This rematch will be just as entertaining as the game itself. Saints cornerbacks Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams will also need to handle Falcons wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel in their one on one match ups to allow the New Orleans safeties to help in run support and pass coverage against Freeman and Coleman.
Look for the Saints to use Kamara heavily in the passing game, while Ingram will get the bulk of the touches in the rushing attack. Kamara will most likely be lined up out of the slot or even out wide often, as New Orleans attempts to maximize the mismatches that the rookie star causes, in addition to hopefully minimizing the impact of Deion Jones. Quarterback Drew Brees will most certainly need a stellar performance from his running backs, particularly if Thomas isn't able to play. The 7th ranked Saints pass defense will likely try to keep cornerbacks Lattimore, Crawley, and Williams in tight one on one coverage as much as possible, in hopes of bringing extra rushers on Ryan, and reducing the amount of extra blockers against Cam Jordan. New Orleans linebackers and safeties, though thinned, will need to control the talented Atlanta backs and not allow them to take control of the game.
Expect the Saints to come out of the gate with laser sharp focus and intensity after a gut wrenching loss two weeks ago to this team, and a somewhat sloppy performance a week ago. This game will be close throughout, as many have in this bitterly contested rivalry, but this young Saints team seems geared towards a potential deep playoff run.
Ring the bell, this one will be a war from start to finish.
PREDICTION: Saints 27, Falcons 21
Who wins this highly anticipated rematch?
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