Two areas worth highlighting for the New Orleans Saints (9-2) entering their Thursday night, nationally televised game against the Falcons (3-8) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
First, a victory would give the Saints their third consecutive NFC South Division title, and that's always the first objective for the season. Because division winners equal playoff participants, and they host at least one playoff game. It'd be the second time under Coach Sean Payton that New Orleans has won at least 10 regular-season games for three straight years, and would extend the franchise record for consecutive division titles.
Second, the Saints absolutely remember the thumping the Falcons administered on Nov. 10, a 26-9 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that snapped New Orleans' six-game winning streak and ranks as the Saints' worst showing of the season. And if "revenge" is too strong of a word to use, "redemption" at least should be on the list of useable terms.
The Saints know that game wasn't a true representation of what they've been this season. Here are a few ways in which they can provide such a representation Thursday night, against a team that – with little else to feel prideful about – would love nothing more than to be able to say it swept this season series.
- No opponent this season has more effectively affected the Saints' passing game than did Atlanta. Four Falcons combined to sack Drew Brees sacked six times (defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had 2.5) and that was against a Saints offensive line that was healthy. This version will be missing left tackle Terron Armstead (ankle) and left guard Andrus Peat (forearm). In their place, Patrick Omameh and Nick Easton fared well for the past three (Omameh) and eight (Easton) quarters in the lineup. They'll definitely be tested. There may be a need to keep in some extra blockers (Will Clapp could be a huge factor as the tackle-eligible); Brees similarly can't be harassed in this one.
- It's not a sexy stat, but watch the third-down conversions. It should be an indicator of who's having the most offensive success and, just as importantly, who's controlling the clock. The Saints were 3 of 12 on third down in the first meeting, had the ball for just 26:14 and many of their 63 plays came down the stretch, in the hurry-up offense, as they trailed. If Atlanta again is effective on third down (6 of 15 in the first game), it probably won't be a good sign.
- I'm thinking Marshon Lattimore will be back starting at cornerback after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury, and that will bolster a defense that slipped a bit in Sunday's 34-31 victory over Carolina. The Saints came up with four sacks and allowed just 351 yards, but the defense pummeled itself with penalties (the hands to the face infractions, pass interferences and a critical personal foul were back breakers) and allowed touchdown drives of 75, 68 and 71 yards. New Orleans' best chance of slowing down Falcons receiver Julio Jones is having Lattimore line up in front of him. The rest of the secondary has been more than capable (Eli Apple quietly has had a really good season as the other starting corner, and P.J. Williams stepped in for Lattimore and held his own against Tampa Bay and Carolina), but the Saints need all their potency in the secondary against Atlanta.
- There isn't much of a reason to believe Michael Thomas won't see some openings and have a night against Atlanta's secondary. The Falcons allow 266.4 passing yards per game, sixth-most in the league, and opponents have 22 touchdowns, versus eight interceptions. Thomas has been on a tear; in the last seven games, he has 70 catches for 881 yards and five touchdowns. And he's getting help from tight end Jared Cook (14 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the last three). If Atlanta looks to take away running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints have the weapons to make up the difference.
- If it's a close game, the Saints rightfully have all the confidence in the world in kicker Wil Lutz. This season, Lutz has made two game-winners with time expiring. New Orleans would prefer a lopsided game but if it comes down to it, Lutz, who played collegiately at Georgia State in Atlanta, would love nothing more than to win it in front of family and friends.