Arguably, the New Orleans Saints haven't played a game this big since the divisional playoff matchup against Seattle during the 2013 season. New Orleans (10-4) vs. Atlanta (9-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday will be loud, raucous and physical. And for the Saints, with a victory, it'll be a chance to remain in first place in the NFC South, end the Falcons' chances of winning the division (courtesy of a two-game lead over the Falcons with one left to play) and, possibly, clinch the division title with a win and a Carolina loss. But, first things first, the Saints have to close out their home regular-season schedule with their seventh victory in eight tries. Here are a few ways for that to happen:
- The Falcons won the first matchup, 20-17, in Atlanta. It wasn't because the Saints weren't up to the challenge defensively. New Orleans forced turnovers on three consecutive possessions (interceptions by Marshon Lattimore, Chris Banjo and Marcus Williams) and held Matt Ryan to 221 passing yards, on 15 completions in 27 attempts. It'll be difficult to duplicate that kind of production and coverage, but the Saints likely will need a close approximation of it, and it appears they have the personnel capable of doing so. Falcon receiver Julio Jones (five catches for 98 yards in the first game, 76 for 1,215 and three touchdowns this season) is capable of dominating opponents but so far, Lattimore has been up to every challenge. Their individual battle may be an indicator of which team has the most success, and will be worth watching. Ryan has been off the last two games (a combined 32 of 58 for 433 yards and two touchdowns, with three interceptions) so the Saints may be catching last year's MVP at an opportune time.
- While the Falcons haven't been proficient via the pass, the ground game has come alive the last two games. Atlanta has run for 333 yards and two touchdowns on 72 carries during that time, and Devonte Freeman (46 carries, 217 yards and two scores) has been a bruising producer. The Saints are without linebacker A.J. Klein; that means Manti Te'o, Craig Robertson, Michael Mauti, et al, will have to be up to the challenge. Freeman is capable of running around defenders, and he's willing to run over them. The Saints can't let him get going, or it'll be a long day.
- New Orleans got back on track as a running team Sunday against the Jets. After being held to 50 yards on 15 carries against the Falcons, the Saints totaled 131 and two touchdowns on 28 carries against the Jets. Mark Ingram II – career highs in rushing yards (1,045) and rushing touchdowns (11) this season – has been as good, or better, than the numbers suggest. He's an every-down, heavy-duty back, but he won't have to be this time against the Falcons. Rookie Alvin Kamara, who was forced out of the first game with a concussion in the first quarter, is healthy and ready for another crack at the Falcons defense. His absence was felt; undoubtedly, the Saints were forced to alter their approach minus Kamara's versatility. New Orleans has to be more productive as a running team Sunday to give itself the best chance to win.
- If you've ever been inclined to downplay how important it is for a team to convert on third down, take note – in three of the past four games, the Saints have gone 3-for-13 on third down (against the Rams), 3-for-10 (against Atlanta) and 3-for-10 (against the Jets). They only won one of the games. In the losses to the Rams and Falcons, the opponents had 73 and 65 offensive snaps, compared to the Saints' 52 in each game, and the time of possession battle was lopsided, 35:26-24:34 for the Rams, and 34:41-25:19 for the Falcons. New Orleans has to convert at a higher rate (it's at 37.9 percent this season) in order to keep alive its drives and give its defense sufficient rest.
- The Saints wouldn't be human if they didn't have payback, atonement, or some variation of the words, on their mind. That Thursday night loss in Atlanta stung, especially because the Saints had a chance to win it in regulation, or at least force overtime. Drew Brees was sharp and efficient in the absence of an effective running game, but his end zone interception with 85 seconds left marred a 26-for-35, 271-yard, two-touchdown performance. It'll be interesting to see if Atlanta defends Saints receiver Michael Thomas the same way, or if they decide that the Pro Bowler is a player who needs to be addressed differently. Thomas has been on a roll, and he and Brees are clicking. It's possible that Brees started envisioning this rematch as soon as the clock expired in Atlanta. He doesn't often make the same mistakes twice.
- Saints players basically have challenged their fans to be as loud, as supportive and as disruptive – at the appropriate times, of course – as they can be Sunday. They believe the crowd can be an X factor. That has been the case in previous seasons, and Sunday is another appropriate occasion for the Superdome to rock. If the Falcons are using hand signals on offense, that may be a good sign.