NFL Preview - New Orleans (8-2) at Atlanta (2-8)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - What many figured would be the key game in the NFC South this season has morphed into a potential mismatch.
The New Orleans Saints have found their way again with Sean Payton back on the sidelines after a one-year suspension, while the Atlanta Falcons, who finished 13-3 in 2012 and perhaps one play away from a Super Bowl berth, have endured a miserable season thanks in large part to injuries.
Payton has pushed all the right buttons after spending a year away from the game as punishment for the bounty scandal in New Orleans, most notably hiring defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has turned around a historically awful group from the Saints' 7-9 2012 campaign.
Last week Payton lit a fire under his slumping kicker Garrett Hartley by bringing in a few potential replacements to look at and the veteran responded Sunday by connecting on three fourth-quarter field goals, including the game- winner in a 23-20 come-from-behind win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Hartley, who had missed four of his previous six attempts, drilled a 31-yard kick as time expired to lift the Saints.
"I love the way he responded ... I'm proud of him," Payton said.
The NFC South-leading Saints (8-2), who are one game ahead of Carolina for the NFC South lead and 1 1/2 games south of Seattle for the top spot in the conference, also benefited from a controversial personal foul penalty on San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Drew Brees passed for 305 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the win, while his counterpart, Colin Kaepernick, was limited to 127 yards through the air while the Niners as a whole amassed just 196 total yards.
Despite Kaepernick's troubles a road victory was within reach for San Francisco when Brooks sent Brees to the turf with a punishing hit late in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that fellow linebacker Patrick Willis recovered.
Brooks, though, was flagged for his high tackle, and the extended possession resulted in Hartley's game-tying 42-yard field goal with 2:06 on the clock.
"I felt like I hit him with my chest, like I bear-hugged him ... kind of hard," Brooks said.
The officials were put to the test again when Kaepernick threw the ball away near his own goal line on the ensuing drive. The quarterback was ruled outside the tackles, but even though the call went the 49ers' way, they had to punt with just under two minutes remaining.
Fair-catch interference put the ball on the Saints' own 40-yard line, and Brees quickly completed 3-of-4 passes for a total 41 yards to move into field- goal range.
"These are the (games) that just sharpen you, build confidence moving forward," said Brees.
The Falcons, meanwhile, may have hit a new low last Sunday in Tampa, getting trounced by the lowly Buccaneers, 41-28.
Matt Ryan was 19-for-36 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for Atlanta (2-8), which has lost four straight since a 31-23 win over Tampa Bay on Oct. 20, the team's longest slide since a six-game hiccup in 2007 - the season before coach Mike Smith arrived.
Antone Smith had two carries for 88 yards and a touchdown, while Harry Douglas caught six passes for 134 yards and a score in defeat.
"It's just a tough loss. We didn't play nearly as well as we needed to, to be competitive," said Ryan. "I thought guys fought and played until the end, which you like to see that, but at the same time very disappointing."
This week's contest marks the 89th meeting between the two division rivals with Atlanta holding a slim 46-42 edge in the all-time series. The Saints, however, have won 12 of the last 15.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
When you think about the Saints, you usually start with the offense and Brees and Co. have certainly done their part, amassing 419.1 yards per game, good for second in the NFL, as well as 28.8 points per game.
Brees himself is connecting on 68.2 percent of his passes and is second to Denver's Peyton Manning with 3,369 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes. His success is nothing new, however, and a little bump was expected with the return of Payton, who is one of the best two or three play-callers in the business.
New Orleans won the last game between the two clubs, rallying from a 10-0 hole to earn a 23-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the season opener for both clubs. Brees threw for 357 yards and two TDs in that one.
Last year at the Georgia Dome, however, Brees had one of his worst games as a pro, throwing five interceptions and failing to find the end zone in a 23-13 setback. Since that performance, Brees has tossed 38 touchdown passes in just 14 games.
On of Brees' favorite targets, receiver Marques Colston, became New Orleans' all-time leader in receiving yards with 7,923 after piling up 80 on five catches against the 49ers. Colston also traditionally plays well against the Falcons, recording three touchdowns in his last four games against Atlanta.
The Falcons defense, meanwhile, has been one of the worst in the NFL in 2013, allowing 29.2 points per game. Things have only been getting worse recently and the future job prospects of both Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have been called into question.
"It's a tough business. We've had a lot of injuries, and issues on top of the injuries," team owner Arthur Blank said. "These guys are proven leaders and proven by success. They'll do the work that has to be done with my full support."
The main problem on that side of the ball has been injuries to difference makers like Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann and the reliance on young, unproven talent.
"Anytime that you've got a number of young guys playing, and we have a number of young guys who have had a lot of snaps, you've got to be impressed with some of their performances," Smith said. "(Linebacker Paul) Worrilow has done an outstanding job. That is three games that he has come out and played extremely well. Our corners have gotten lots of play, our defensive line; we've had young guys playing on the defensive line.
"Those are the positives for the future, but when you talk about the future, the future in the NFL is the next game. This game on Thursday is really about as far as you can look as a coach."
Looking at the Saints' is paramount but you can no longer sleep on the D either. In fact the real substantial improvement for NOLA this season has been on Rob Ryan's side of the ball. Ryan took over a unit which allowed a disastrous 440.1 ypg and 28.4 points per contest in 2012 and completely turned it around with a philosophy change.
Instead of sticking with a 4-3 zone-based scheme that wasn't working, Ryan switched to his patented 3-4 attacking mentality and the results have been substantial. The Saints rank fourth in the NFL, giving up just 305.4 ypg and fifth with 18.3 points allowed per contest.
The team did suffer a significant loss against the 49ers, though, when cornerback Jabari Greer went down with an ACL tear in his left knee.
When the snowball starts rolling down the wrong side of the hill in the NFL, it's difficult to stop and that's what is going on in Atlanta. A 13-win team from a year ago is now in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and that's not changing any time soon.
New Orleans, which is 6-0 at the Superdome, is generally not the same kind of team on the road but this is a golden opportunity to continue pressing Seattle for the top spot in the NFC. The Georgia Dome is a fast track and the Falcons are just not competitive right now.
"Clearly, we're 10 games into this thing and certainly far, far away from where we want to be," Matt Ryan said. "We've got six games to go. It's about going out there and taking pride in what you do."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Falcons 18
11/20 11:21:02 ET