NFL Preview - Atlanta (9-5) at New Orleans (11-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A division title could be secured and a cherished individual record has a chance to be broken when the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints square off at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a marquee Monday night matchup with very high stakes.
The streaking Saints enter this pivotal Week 16 showdown between the NFC South's top two teams on the verge of capturing the division for the second time in the past three years. New Orleans currently leads the Falcons by two games in the standings with two to play, and needs only to win one of its two remaining contests to accomplish the feat.
Though the Saints have already clinched a place in the upcoming playoffs, the home game that comes with winning the division should ensure they'll have plenty of motivation for Monday's clash. New Orleans has been dominant at the Superdome over the course of this 2011 season, prevailing in all six of its bouts to date while averaging an astounding 39.8 points per game.
The Saints were forced to take to the road as a Wild Card entry in last year's postseason and wound up being bounced by a 7-9 Seattle squad in the opening round.
Atlanta, last year's NFC South champions, will making a return postseason trip as well after clinching at least a Wild Card berth following losses by Dallas, Arizona and Chicago over the weekend. Even with that objective now accomplished, the Falcons will have a larger goal in mind when they take the field on Monday.
"This is exactly where we wanted to be, in the mix in December with everything we want still in front of us with two games to play," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan remarked. "It just so happens that New Orleans is on the schedule this week. It's exciting. It's always fun playing down there and this is the time of the year that I think players enjoy the most. This is when it really counts."
To keep their division hopes alive, Atlanta will have to slow down a prolific New Orleans offense that also hasn't had too much trouble scoring away from home, as evidenced by last week's 42-20 throttling of the overmatched Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. The Saints rolled up 573 total yards on the afternoon, in large part due to a near-flawless performance from standout quarterback Drew Brees.
The league MVP candidate completed 32-of-40 passes against the Vikings for 412 yards and five touchdowns without an interception, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards and five scores with no picks while hitting on 80 percent of his throws in a single outing.
That sensational display upped Brees' season yardage total to 4,780, leaving him just 305 shy of surpassing Hall of Famer Dan Marino's league standard of 5,084 passing yards set during the 1984 campaign.
The New Orleans defense did its part as well in last Sunday's triumph, limiting the Vikings to 207 total yards and recording four sacks to help the Saints to their sixth consecutive win.
"I think we're jelling at the right time," New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. I'm talking jelling as a team on offense, defense, special teams, the camaraderie within practice, the meetings, being out and about before the games, getting to know each other off the field [and] just not on the field. I think defensively we're playing well. Offensively it's always been lights-out, so has special teams."
Atlanta comes into Monday's tilt on a nice roll of its own, with the club's 41-14 dismantling of lowly Jacksonville in Week 15 giving the Falcons wins in two straight games and seven of their last nine tests.
One of the losses over that stretch did come at the hands of the Saints, however, with New Orleans coming out on top in a 26-23 overtime thriller at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 13. The go-ahead points came on a short field goal from kicker John Kasay that was set up by the Saints stopping the Falcons on 4th- and-1 from the Atlanta 29-yard line.
The last four encounters between these rivals have all had a final margin of three points.
Atlanta leads its overall regular-season series with New Orleans by a 45-39 count, but the Saints have taken five of the last six games between the teams and are 9-2 in their 11 most recent matchups with the Falcons. Atlanta was able to halt a string of four consecutive losses at the Superdome with a 27-24 decision there last season, though New Orleans exacted revenge via a 17-14 verdict at the Georgia Dome later that year. The Saints will be attempting to sweep their home-and-home set with the Falcons for the fourth time in the past six seasons.
These longtime division foes have also opposed one another once in the postseason, with Atlanta posting a 27-20 win at the Superdome in a 1991 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Sean Payton is 9-2 against the Falcons during his six-year tenure as the Saints' head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith has gone 2-5 against both New Orleans and Payton in his present position.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Primarily known as a grind-it-out, run-oriented team during Smith's first three seasons on the job, the Falcons have opened up the offense in 2011 and become a more explosive outfit as a result. Ryan (3698 passing yards, 26 TD, 12 INT) is closing in on becoming only the second quarterback in franchise history to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in a single year and has been on fire as of late, tossing seven touchdowns without an interceptions over the past two weeks while not committing a turnover in four of the last five games. Top receiver Roddy White (85 receptions, 1100 yards, 8 TD) also comes in on a tear, with the three-time Pro Bowl honoree having hauled in a Ryan touchdown strike in four straight tests and amassing 135 yards and two scores on 10 receptions in the Jacksonville game. He's the headliner of a deep corps of pass-catchers that also includes big-play rookie Julio Jones (42 receptions, 5 TD) and venerable veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (74 receptions, 7 TD), who came through with 71 yards and a score on six grabs in the teams' earlier meeting. The Saints will also have to pay attention to slot man Harry Douglas (38 receptions, 1 TD), who put up career bests of eight catches and 133 receiving yards in place of an injured Jones in the Week 10 clash. Atlanta's balanced offense also contains a three-time 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield in Michael Turner (1129 rushing yards, 9 TD, 13 receptions), though the powerful eighth-year pro is averaging a pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry over the last four games and hasn't surpassed 76 yards over that span.
Expect Ryan and his cast of receivers to attempt to exploit a New Orleans secondary that has shown itself to be vulnerable at times this season. The Saints are allowing 256.1 yards per game through the air in 2011, the fifth- highest amount in the NFL, and their 13 passing plays of 40 or more yards surrendered are tied for the most in the league. The defense did put forth an outstanding effort last time around, however, holding Minnesota to a scant 102 net passing yards and continually harassing rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who completed just 14-of-31 throws, with heavy pressure. Coordinator Gregg Williams has a reputation for being ultra-aggressive, and he's got one of the league's best blitzing safeties in Roman Harper (87 tackles), the team's leader with 7 1/2 sacks. End Will Smith (30 tackles, 6.5 sacks) is a proven sack artist as well, having posted double-digit totals in that department twice in his career. The Saints have been tougher to run on and especially so as of late, having kept the opposition under 90 rushing yards in three of the past four weeks. The return of Vilma (46 tackles) earlier this month from a knee injury that kept him out of four games has helped shore things up, while the physical Harper is also a great asset in run support.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The offensive numbers New Orleans has compiled this season are staggering, with the Saints topping the NFL in total yards (456.7 ypg), passing yards (331.4 ypg) and third-down conversion percentage (54.8). They've been kept under 400 yards only three times in their 14 games, and only once at the Superdome in 2011. The biggest reason for that success has been Brees (4780 passing yards, 37 TD, 11 INT), who's already set a league record with 11 outings of 300 or more passing yards and is on pace to break his own single-year mark for completion percentage, having made good on an incredible 71.5 percent of his attempts. The competitive quarterback also does a terrific job of spreading the ball around to a bevy of quality options, with 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham (87 receptions, 1171 yards, 9 TD) and big-bodied wide receiver Marques Colston (66 receptions, 5 TD) the two most frequent targets. The pair combined for 15 catches and 195 receiving yards in the Saints' November win at the Georgia Dome, with deep threat Robert Meachem (35 receptions, 5 TD) on the other end of a 33-yard scoring delivery from Brees in that game. Slot receiver Lance Moore (50 receptions, 8 TD) is another weapon and is coming off a two-touchdown game against the Vikings, while the versatile Darren Sproles (496 rushing yards, 79 receptions, 7 total TD) leads all running backs in catches and receiving yards (659) this season. The astute offseason pickup is the best playmaker out of three-man committee that also contains reliable holdover Pierre Thomas (479 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 1 TD) and second-year pro Chris Ivory (212 rushing yards), who figures to work as the between-the-tackles specialist with rookie first-round pick Mark Ingram doubtful with a sprained toe.
Atlanta was able to keep pace with the Saints in the first matchup by making their powerful offense one-dimensional, with New Orleans managing just 41 rushing yards on 16 carries that afternoon, and defending the run has been one of the team's strengths this season. The Falcons are yielding 96.6 yards per game on the ground (4th overall) and have gotten excellent years out of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (124 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and weakside starter Sean Weatherspoon (107 tackles, 4 sacks). Atlanta has been solid against the pass as well and overwhelmed the anemic Jaguars back in Week 15, permitting a mere 91 net yards through the air and recording five sacks on the night. End John Abraham (33 tackles, 8.5 sacks) was particularly a force, with the 12-year veteran registering 3 1/2 takedowns of rookie Blaine Gabbert and forcing two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown by tackle Corey Peters (24 tackles, 3 sacks). That impressive performance also come without the services of Atlanta's best cover man, cornerback Brent Grimes (42 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD), a 2010 Pro Bowl selection who's due back for this game after missing three weeks while recovering from knee surgery. Seasoned nickel back Kelvin Hayden (24 tackles, 2 INT) is questionable to return from a dislocated toe, however, with second-year man Dominique Franks (10 tackles) the favorite to handle those duties if he can't go.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Pressuring the quarterbacks. It goes without saying that the Falcons will be hard-pressed to win this game if they can't prevent Brees from picking their defense apart with his pinpoint passing. Abraham will have to a factor like he was last week if Atlanta is to accomplish the difficult task of slowing the Saints down, and he'll need help from 2011 disappointments Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann on the other side. The Falcons do have the necessary skill players to keep up in a track meet, so Williams also needs to devise ways of making Ryan uncomfortable in the pocket.
Ryan. Brees has been virtually unstoppable on the Superdome turf during his record-setting campaign, generating a tremendous 20-to-3 touchdown-to- interception ratio for an offense that averages nearly 40 points at home. That means Atlanta's quarterback has to be at the top of his game for his team to match New Orleans' firepower. In Atlanta's five losses this season, Ryan has been intercepted seven times and thrown for just five touchdowns.
Red zone execution. Surprisingly, neither of these powerful offenses were effective down near the goal line in the first meeting, with both teams settling for field goal tries on three possessions each in the red zone. Whichever one can break through in that all-important area will have a distinct advantage on Monday.
This one has all the makings of living up to its advance billing, as both offenses have been operating at high levels during the stretch run and the history of this series suggests the game will be close. However, recent results have also been well in favor of the Saints, and having this contest held at the Superdome is a variable that clearly benefits the home team as well. The Falcons aren't going to go down easy and should be able to hit on some big plays on New Orleans' gambling defense, but there's no question that the Saints possess the more explosive and consistent of these two offenses. The combination of Brees and the Superdome aura is simply too formidable to ignore.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Falcons 27
12/26 08:09:30 ET