8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Saints -13, Over/Under: 59.5
Division Rivals trending in very different directions meet on Thanksgiving in the Big Easy, as the surging New Orleans Saints host the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. After a brief glimpse of hope, the 2018 season is beginning to finally unravel for the Flacons (4-6, 3rd in NFC South), who after stringing together three consecutive games in route to reaching .500, have since dropped back-to-back contests leaving their faint Playoff hopes on the brink of dissipating. Needless to say, this campaign has not gone according to plan for Dan Quinn and his charges, who have suffered through a slew of injuries, while wasting an early schedule loaded with home games (five of their first seven outings were played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium), getting off to a miserable 1-4 start in the process. Unlike last year, in which the formerly high-flying Offense struggled to get in synch under new Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Matt Ryan & Co. have found their groove under the veteran playcaller, averaging 26.3 Points (9th Overall) on 421.4 Total Yards (6th Overall), including 332.6 Passing Yards (2nd Overall) on 7.47 Net Yards per Attempt (6th Overall), while committing the second-fewest Turnovers in the league (8). Furthermore, they’ve been excellent on Third Down, converting 51.1% of their Attempts (2nd Overall), while scoring a Touchdown on 66.7% of their trips to the Red Zone (9th Overall). Ryan, who struggled mightily in his first year under Sarkisian, looks reborn, completing a career-best 71.1% of his attempts for a league-leading 330.6 Passing Yards on 7.55 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Two Touchdowns and just Four Interceptions, while posting a Quarterback Rating of 73.6, which ranks just below the figure that he posted in his 2016 MVP Campaign (79.4). Julio Jones (73 REC, 1,158 YDS, 15.9 Y/G, 3 TD) too has flourished, breaking a 12-game run without a Touchdown with three consecutive outings reaching the End Zone. However, the majority of their issues have been on Defense, where coincidentally the injuries have hit the hardest, leveling what was one of the more promising, up and coming units in the league. Starting Defensive Backs Ricardo Allen (Achilles) and Keanu Neal (Knee) were both lost in the early stages of the season due, while Linebacker Deion Jones (Foot) has missed virtually the entirety of the term, though could very well return to the field tonight, after being withdrawn from Injured Reserve last week. It couldn’t come at a better time for a unit that has been gashed repeatedly for an average of 27.6 Points (29th Overall) on 405.2 Total Yards (29th Overall) including 284.1 Yards against the Pass (29th Overall) on 7.2 Net Yards per Attempt (26th Overall), and another 121.1 Yards versus the Run (21st Overall), 5.1 Yards per Carry (31st Overall). Furthermore, Quinn’s Defense has been miserable on Third Down, allowing opponents to convert 52.1% of the time (31st Overall), and hasn’t been much better in the Red Zone, yielding a Touchdown on 73.7% opportunities (29th Overall), while struggling to force Turnovers with a scant Nine (25th Overall) or place pressure on opposing Quarterbacks with Nineteen Sacks (28th Overall). The Run Defense in particular played a major role in each of their last two defeats, a 16-28 at the Cleveland Browns followed by a last-minute 22-19 failure at home to the Dallas Cowboys in which the Falcons were trampled for a combined 343 Rushing Yards. This certainly doesn’t bode well for Thursday’s matchup with the Saints, whose juggernaut of an Offense has embarrassed the competition of late. When these teams met earlier in the season, a 43-37 New Orleans victory in Atlanta, the visitors amassed 534 Total Yards on Thirty-Two First Downs, rushing for 143 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on Twenty-Seven Carries, while holding possession for 37:45, and converting on 7-of-14 Third Downs. The Falcons couldn’t stop a nose bleed on that day, sacking Drew Bress just once and failing to force a Turnover to shift momentum. Ironically, the only Defense that was remotely close to slowing the visiting side down was the Saints themselves, who were penalized eleven times for a whopping 120 Yards, though that didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Meanwhile, as their opponent watches their season fall away from them, the Saints (9-1, 1st in NFC South) are absolutely rolling, folks, winners of nine consecutive games, ascending to the Top Seed in the NFC on the strength of a potent Offense that very well may be the most prolific in the league today, which is really saying something in the era of modern, offensive football. It’s no surprise that Sean Payton and Drew Brees have New Orleans firing on all cylinders on this side of the football, though it’s not outlandish to proclaim that this unit may be the finest that these two figures have piloted since they both arrived in the Big Easy back in 2006. Through ten games, the Saints have averaged a league-best 37.8 Points (1st Overall) on 434.2 Total Yards (3rd Overall), including 302.8 Yards through the air (6th Overall) on 8.45 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), along with another 131.4 Yards on the ground (6th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (20th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve met very little resistance on Third Down converting 47.0% of their opportunities (5th Overall), or in the Red Zone for that matter either, scoring a Touchdown on 73.0% of their trips (4th Overall), all the while taking excellent care of the football, turning it over on just eight occasions (2nd Overall). And if that wasn’t enough to convince you of their credentials, consider this: New Orleans has set tied an NFL Record with Six 40-Point Games in a season, and they’ve accomplished that in just Ten Games. At the ripe old age of thirty-nine, the aforementioned Brees has shown no signs of slowing down, completing a career-high and league-record 76.9% of his Attempts for 2,964 Yards on 8.43 Net Yards per Attempt, tossing Twenty-Five Touchdowns to just One Interception, while posting a league-best Quarterback Rating of 89.3. However, as the numbers would indicate, this Saints’ attack is far from the venerable Quarterback slinging the football all over the Superdome. No, there’s plenty of balance to be found on this unit, with the electrifying tandem of Mark Ingram (79 CAR, 388 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 4 TD) and Alvin Kamara (136 CAR, 617 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 11 TD) tearing opponents apart out of the Backfield. Versatility is the key here, for no team in the league uses their Tailbacks in the passing game as effectively as New Orleans, with Payton exploiting mismatches against helpless Linebackers on a weekly basis. Kamara in particular has been absolutely deadly, reeling in Fifty-Six Receptions on Seventy-Two Targets for 510 Yards on 9.1 Yards per Reception, scoring Four Touchdowns. The Sophomore has been the second-most targeted player behind Michael Thomas (82 REC, 1,042 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 8 TD), who has emerged as Brees’ preferred target downfield. When we last saw this team, they were busy demolishing the reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles in a 48-7 rout at the Superdome, accumulating a whopping 546 Total Yards on Twenty-Eight First Downs, converting on 6-of-11 Third Downs, while possessing the football for a staggering 37:44. Brees was flawless, completing 22-of-30 Passes for 363 Yards and Four Touchdowns, while Ingram needed just Sixteen Carries to put up 103 Yards and Two Touchdowns, with Kamara posting 108 Yards from Scrimmage on only Fourteen Touches, highlighted by a debilitating 37-Yard Touchdown Reception on 4th & 7 early in the Fourth Quarter with the score very much in the home side’s favor at 45-7. Talk about a kill shot from Payton & Co. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the play of Rookie Receiver Tre’Quan Smith (22 REC, 371 YDS, 16.9 Y/R, 4 TD), who torched the Eagles’ Secondary for Ten Receptions on Fourteen Targets for a career-high 157 Yards and a Touchdown. The Saints had been searching for quality depth at the position after vertical threat Ted Ginn Jr. (12 REC, 135 YDS, 211.3 Y/R, 2 TD) was sent to Injured Reserve with a knee injury, signing a pair of veterans in successions, including Dez Bryant, who subsequently ruptured his Achilles in his first practice with the team, and most recently Brandon Marshall (11 REC, 136 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 1 TD) who has yet to make his debut after being acquired early last week. If Smith continues to emerge, then this Offense will be that much more frightening, which is hard to imagine at this point.