8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Saints -1.5, Over/Under: 53
A titanic NFC South clash is on tap tonight from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as the reigning NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons look to halt the progress of the division-leading New Orleans Saints in the first of two meetings taking place in a three-week period. In a season chock full of surprises, the resurrection of the Saints (9-3, 1st in NFC South) stands among the most shocking, as for all intents and purposes the general feeling was that the successful Drew Brees/Sean Payton Era was coming to an end. Brees, at Thirty-Eight Years of Age with his contract set to expire, and Payton who had been linked with a number of job openings during the Offseason, looked set to amicably part ways with the franchise after three consecutive 7-9 campaigns which saw them miss the Playoffs on each occasion. Most of their shortcomings were due to a woefully miserable defense, which consistently ranked among the league’s worst, and at times was so bad that it even managed to counteract the exploits of their prolific Offense, which conversely has ranked among the NFL’s elite ever since Brees and Payton got together back in 2006; New Orleans has ranked no lower than Sixth in the league in Total Offense over the last eleven years, ranking No. One Overall an astounding six times, including twice in the last three years alone. Now in 2017, with the Offense once again firing on all cylinders, it seems that the Defense may finally be ready to carry it’s own weight; with twelve games in the books, the Saints have improved significantly on this side of the ball, allowing 20.3 Points (12th Overall) on 330.1 Total Yards (12th Overall), including 217.3 Yards versus the Pass (11th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (13th Overall), along with 112.8 Yards against the Run (17th Overall) on 4.6 Yards per Attempt (29th Overall), while amassing Thirty-Three Sacks (). It’s been largely a youth movement in the Big Easy, with a number of youngsters, particularly in the Secondary, developing what had been a perennial weakness into a strength; Safeties Kenny Vaccaro (46 TKL, 1.5 SK, 3 INT, 7 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) and Vonn Bell (61 TKL, 3.5 SK, 2 PD, 2 FF) have been playmakers, while Payton and Co. hit the jackpot drafting Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (36 TKL, 2 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR), who looks like the Defensive Rookie of the Year at this point. After yielding 400+ yards for the first time this season in back-to-back games, it must have been satisfying for the Coaching Staff to see their charges buckle down and relegate the Carolina Panthers to just Sixteen First Downs and 279 Total Yards in last weekend’s huge 31-21 victory, which gave them a crucial season sweep of their division rivals. The Louisiana Superdome crowd was in a frenzy as the hosts kept Cam Newton largely in check, with the former MVP completing 17-of-27 Passes for 183 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, while rushing for Fifty-One Yards on Six Carries. On the flipside, the Saints ran wild, rushing for 148 Yards and Three Scores on Twenty-Eight Carries, with the tandem of Mark Ingram (14 CAR, 85 YDS, 1 TD) and Alvin Kamara (9 CAR, 60 YDS, 2 TD) doing the brunt of the damage. However, this was far from surprising, for anyone that has watched this team operate will tell you that it’s been the Ground Game that has set the tone for New Orleans all season long; with Brees in the twilight of his career, it makes sense that Payton would shift the focus of the attack towards the Run in order to preserve the health of his Quarterback, which is precisely what they’ve done, ranking Ninth in the league in Rushing Attempts (28.7), Third in Rushing Yards (142.6), and First in both Rushing Touchdowns (19) and Yards per Carry (5.0). Granted, it may have taken a little while to really get things rolling in this regard, but ever since their Bye Week back in early October they’ve been borderline unstoppable, churning out a healthy 166.9 Yards, which has coincidentally translated to a 7-1 record in that span. Ingram (180 CAR, 922 YDS, 9 TD) has followed up his first career 1,000-Yard Season with a career-high 76.8 Yards per Game on 5.1 Yards per Carry, while leading the league with Nine Rushing Scores, and hauling in another Forty-Two Passes for 255 Yards to boot. With that said, the unsung hero of the unit has been it’s newest face, Alvin Kamara (86 CAR, 606 YDS, 7 TD), who has racked up an explosive 7.0 Yards per Carry, and 8.4 Yards per Touch. With Sunday’s performance against the Panthers, the Third Round Pick out of Tennessee became just the third Rookie in NFL History to record 600+ Yards Rushing and Receiving, and he’s done so with four games to spare. This is a perfect case of talent meeting system, for this kid has been absolutely lethal in Payton’s diverse playbook, which incorporates a ton of short passes to the ‘Backs, totaling Sixty Receptions for 614 Yards and Four Touchdowns on a whopping Seventy-Four Targets the second-most on the team.
Meanwhile, after experiencing arguably the worst collapse in Super Bowl History, the Falcons (7-5, 3rd in NFC South) now find themselves fighting for their Playoff Lives at this point, on the fringes of the final Wild Card in the NFC. Needless to say, it’s been a very uneven campaign thus far for Dan Quinn’s charges, who have managed to win three consecutive games just as easily as they’ve lost three in a row. When we last saw them, it finally looked as if they had sorted out their issues on Offense, winning four out of five contests largely on the strength of Matt Ryan and Co. who were so explosive in 2016; during that span, Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was derided throughout the first half of the term for his playcalling tendencies, appeared to have gained a firm grip on the wheel, with Atlanta averaging 27.4 Points on 394.4 Total Yards, highlighted by a 516-Yard outburst in a 34-20 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago. And then last weekend’s meeting with the Minnesota Vikings happened… It was as if all the good will that this unit had built over the course of a month had been sucked out of the windows at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, for the hosts looked utterly lifeless in the 14-9 debacle. Granted, Minnesota has made a lot of good Offenses look bad over the last few years, but this performance had to be truly worrisome for Quinn and his Staff. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers, folks, but be forewarned, they’re not very pretty; the Falcons mustered just three Matt Bryant Field Goals on a season-worst 275 Total Yards, including a dreadful 1-of-10 on Third Down. That last figure was particularly troublesome, for the Offense had been ranked Third in Third Down Conversion Rate coming into the game, succeeding on 45.4% of their opportunities. Ryan (66.7%, 254.8 Y/G, 7.25 NY/A, 16 TD, 8 INT), the reigning MVP, looked pedestrian throughout the affair, completing just 16-of-29 Attempts for 179 Yards. Then again, the tenth-year veteran hasn’t resembled the player he was a year ago for a while now; blame it on the playcalling, injuries, or maybe even age, but anyone with a pulse that has seen Ryan perform in 2017 will have a hard to time drawing many parallels to his counterpart from 2016, with his Completion Percentage (69.9% to 66.7%), Touchdown Percentage (7.1% to 4.1%), Interception Percentage (1.3% to 2.1%), Yards per Attempt (9.3 to 7.8), Yards per Completion (13.3 to 11.8), Net Yards per Attempts (8.25 to 7.25), Passer Rating (117.1 to 95.4), and QBR (83.3 to 67.7) all in regression from the previous term. Keep in mind that he led the league in all but two of those categories, further underlining his fall from grace. Many will point to the lack of Big or Chunk Plays that he and his teammates feasted upon a year ago being the main issue, which comes back to the criticism of Sarkisian; under former Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Atlanta totaled a league-best Eighteen Touchdowns of Twenty Yards or more, with Ryan accounting for all but three of those plays, parlaying to a remarkable 39.5% of his Touchdown Passes traveling 20+ Yards. It’s been a different story this year, for through a dozen games he’s only had five such scoring plays, which is all the team has had thus far. With all that said, despite all their problems, the fact remains that this team is still very much in the control of their own destiny, for the Wild Card and even the NFC South is still within their grasp. All four games left on their schedule come against the rest of their division, with two games against the Saints along with rematches with both the Buccaneers to close out the Regular Season, making it possible to leapfrog their opponent tonight, whom they trail by two games in the standings. Since Dan Quinn took over in 2015, the Falcons are just 7-6 against the NFC South, though they’ve been much better of late, winning six out of the last seven meetings with their division brethren. Ryan on the other hand, hasn’t had the best of luck against the Saints, going 7-10 in seventeen career matchups, despite completing 65.2% of his Passes for an average of 299.6 Yards per Game on 7.56 Net Yards per Attempt, with Thirty Touchdowns in comparison to just Eight Interceptions.