It matters not one whit that the New Orleans Saints (9-1, on a nine-game winning streak) and Atlanta Falcons (4-6, two straight losses) appear to be heading in opposite directions entering a Thanksgiving night bout in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This is an NFC South Division game. It's a fistfight against the rival that you want to beat regardless of standings or status.
The Saints would love to create even more space between themselves and the Falcons. Atlanta would love nothing more than to be the team that ends New Orleans' winning streak. The Saints already have beaten the Falcons once, 43-37 in overtime on a walk-off touchdown. Here are a few ways in which they can do so again:
- Drew Brees is playing like the NFL's Most Valuable Player, and the Saints' offense is humming right now. As we continue to marvel at the efficiency of Brees – 2,964 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, one interception, 76.9 completion percentage – let's also remember that he arguably has the best offensive line in the NFL (even without left tackle Terron Armstead), and New Orleans' running game has been a bully since Mark Ingram's return six games ago. Brees and the Saints' passing game undressed Atlanta's secondary in the first game; he completed 39 of 49 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns (he ran for two more). It won't be headline news if they do it again – he's having that kind of season.
- New Orleans' secondary has improved since the first game. That's a good thing, because Atlanta's Matt Ryan completed 26 of 35 passes for 374 yards and five touchdowns in that one. But, probably, that improvement won't translate into a total shutdown. That's hard to do in today's NFL, and whatever problems Atlanta might be experiencing, Ryan isn't one of them; he has completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,306 yards and 22 touchdowns, with four interceptions. Still, New Orleans likes what it has seen from its secondary lately, especially after the addition of cornerback Eli Apple. Falcons receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley are a handful. Apple, Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams won't be given many opportunities to slip up. Keep in mind, too, that the Saints have registered three or more sacks in seven of the nine games during their winning streak. And since pass rush and coverage usually go together, Sheldon Rankins and Cam Jordan (six sacks each) and Alex Okafor (three) will have a hand in deciding the success of their teammates on the back end.
- That reference to the Saints running game deserves more than a passing glance, and here's why: In six games since Ingram returned, New Orleans has averaged 149 rushing yards per game on 36 carries. The team averaged 105 yards on 24 carries per game in the four without him. If you want to know why the Saints lead the league in time of possession, at 33:11 per game, that's a decent place to start. Ingram (388 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Alvin Kamara (617 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) present a formidable duo and when they're rolling, the Saints almost are impossible to slow down.
- The opponent is Atlanta, so beware: Something could happen in the kicking game. Since Sean Payton took over as Saints coach in 2006, New Orleans has blocked three Atlanta punts (Steve Gleason in '06, Michael Mauti in '15 and Alex Okafor this season). If Atlanta hasn't fortified a soft spot in its punt protection, New Orleans will find it and exploit it.
- Atlanta has been one of those teams that has been willing to challenge receiver Michael Thomas. It hasn't worked out so well. The Falcons may try something new and, like Philadelphia, dare another receiver to come through for Brees. Tre'Quan Smith has shown that he can be that guy, and this may be the Saints debut for Brandon Marshall. Whatever the case, the Saints always seem to find a way.