The New Orleans Saints enter the season finale in the Georgia Dome against Atlanta with a chance to finish the season on a three-game winning streak and with an 8-8 record, their first non-losing mark since 2013. In order to beat their NFC South Division rivals in the final regular-season game to be played in the Georgia Dome, and win their fourth road game of the season, here are a few goals to be accomplished within the game that will help:
- For all the accolades and can, and should, be heaped on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (346 of 498 for 4,613 yards and 34 touchdowns, with seven interceptions), it's Atlanta's running game that gave the Saints fits in the first meeting between the teams. Atlanta ran for 217 yards and three touchdowns, and averaged seven yards per carry, in its 45-32 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sept. 26. And Atlanta has two backs that are dual threats – Devonta Freeman has run for 983 yards and 10 touchdowns on 215 carries, and caught 49 passes for 381 yards and two scores; Tevin Coleman has 476 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 110 carries, and 28 catches for 406 yards and two scores. The Saints have done a good job of making opponents one-dimensional over the last nine games, allowing an average of 87 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry. Stifling the run will help against the Falcons, too.
- Of course, stifling the run means putting the game on Ryan's shoulders, and he has proven that he can handle the load, especially this season. He's an MVP candidate and if receiver Julio Jones (1,313 yards and five touchdowns on 76 catches, despite missing two games) is healthy and available, they form one of the league's best pitch-and-catch combinations. The Saints don't have cornerback Delvin Breaux available to shadow Jones, but they didn't have him available the first time, either. And they held Jones, the only receiver in the league averaging 100-plus receiving yards per game, to one catch for 16 yards (on seven targets) in that game. Cornerbacks Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb will have their work cut out for them. Jones can line up anywhere, and has to be a focal point wherever he is. Moore has the experience and talent to handle him best in those isolation situations. The Saints will have to tackle well, and safety Jairus Byrd also could play a big role. Also, Ryan has been sacked 36 times; defensive end Cam Jordan (7.5 sacks) and defensive tackles Nick Fairley (5.5) and Sheldon Rankins (four sacks in eight games) can help make life easier for the guys on the back end.
- The Saints won't be hoping for Mark Ingram (940 rushing yards on 185 carries) to run for at least 60 yards just so he can top 1,000 for the first time in his NFL career. They'll need Ingram, and Tim Hightower (519 yards), to be effective to help them have offensive balance. In the six games this season when the Saints have had 30-plus rush attempts, they're undefeated. In the eight games that they've rushed for 100-plus yards, they're 5-3. Clearly, they've given themselves their best chances to win when they've been balanced, and Ingram is deserving of a 1,000-yard season.
- Barring the unimaginable, Drew Brees is going to pass for at least 142 yards and post his NFL-record, fifth 5,000-yard passing season. Also, Michael Thomas (981 receiving yards) should become the Saints' first rookie receiver to reach 1,000 receiving yards since Marques Colston in 2006, and would join Brandin Cooks (1,154 receiving yards) to become the Saints' first 1,000-yard receiving duo in a season since Colston and Lance Moore in '12. The Saints' offensive line deserves tons of credit for all the aforementioned marks. The group exited training camp with some questions and for the overwhelming majority of the season, answered them emphatically. It will need to answer the bell one more time, especially against Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who leads the league with 14.5 sacks this season. Keeping Beasley and Co. at bay will mean Brees has a big day.
- Quietly, rookie Wil Lutz has made 11 consecutive field goals and is now a respectable 26-for-32 this season (two blocked and misses from 61, 50, 53 and 55 yards). The Georgia State product would love nothing more than to kick a game-winner in the town where he played college football. The Saints and Falcons usually play tight games. He may have his chance.