The New Orleans Saints (9-3) won't lock up the NFC South Division title with a victory over Atlanta (7-5) on Thursday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. But they'd place the keys in an almost unreachable place, by virtue of a substantive lead with just three regular-season games remaining. It's never easy to beat a division rival, especially on the road and specifically one as formidable as the reigning NFC champions. Here are a few ways in which the Saints can make it happen.
- It looks like rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is a "go" this week, and his welcome back will include some coverage against Atlanta's Julio Jones (1,063 yards and three touchdowns on 68 catches), arguably the best receiver in the league. Lattimore and second-year pro Ken Crawley have given the Saints a standout duo at cornerback, which helps because the Falcons also have Mohamed Sanu (48-495-5) chipping in at receiver. Coverage will be key, because Atlanta's Matt Ryan (260 of 390 for 3,057 yards and 16 touchdowns, with eight interceptions) gets rid of the ball fast. He only has been sacked 16 times. The Saints' rushers – Cam Jordan leads the charge with 10 of New Orleans' 33 sacks – will need a little time in order to get to Ryan, or at least to apply pressure. Keep an eye on batted balls; the Saints have been very effective at batting down passes at the line.
- As if Ryan wasn't worrisome enough, the Falcons have an outstanding rushing attack between DeVonta Freeman (128 carries for 589 yards and five touchdowns) and Tevin Coleman (130-561-5). Last year, when Atlanta swept the season series, Freeman had 26 carries for 248 yards and a touchdown in the two games, and Coleman added 86 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. As usual, it begins and ends there for the Saints: If they want to make Atlanta one-dimensional, they have to keep the running game under control. A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o will be important, to say the least.
- Atlanta has a speedy linebacker corps. Probably, it hasn't yet faced a player like Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara averages seven yards per carry on 86 rushes, 10.4 yards per reception on 59 catches, has 1,220 yards from scrimmage and has scored 11 touchdowns. And if the Falcons figure out a way to slow down Kamara, there still is the problem presented by Mark Ingram, who has a team-leading 922 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 180 carries, and has caught 42 passes for 255 yards. The Saints average 142.6 rushing yards per game, third-most in the league. If they run it well, they'll control the clock and that'll go a long way toward controlling the Falcons.
- The Saints gain a starting offensive lineman this week (left tackle Terron Armstead) and lose one (left guard Andrus Peat). Fortunately, Senio Kelemete, who will fill in for Peat, has played starter reps at the position because Peat often has filled in at left tackle when Armstead has been unavailable. Each needs to hold up well in protection. Drew Brees doesn't often get sacked (just 15 times this season) and has been masterful at times at just getting rid of the ball to avoid the loss and to preserve the down and distance. The Falcons (32 sacks) apply heat, and they have back starting cornerback Desmond Trufant from injury. If Atlanta plays a lot of man-to-man, receiver Michael Thomas (75 catches for 875 yards and three touchdowns) could show up big for New Orleans.
- For the Saints, it's prime time, national television, on the road, against a division rival, playing for the first time in its new stadium. The Saints need to get off to a fast start or, at worst, prevent the Falcons from doing so. The Falcons are just 3-3 at home and in the three losses, they've averaged 14 points. But in the three wins, the number jacks up to 32 points per game. New Orleans needs to weather the inevitable early storm of emotion from the Falcons, keep its calm and execute in the same way that it has while winning nine of its last 10 games. The Saints are 4-2 on the road and mostly have maintained their poise. Hopefully, they'll handle Thursday's hoopla as well as they've handled other scenarios and venues.