If ever there was a game in which NFL teams were heading in opposite directions, this one appears to be it. On the surface, the New Orleans Saints (7-1), winners of six straight games, playing Atlanta (1-7), loser of six straight, on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has all the makings of each team extending its respective streak.
It's an NFC South Division game. And the teams don't particularly care for one another. And the Falcons probably would like nothing more than to end New Orleans' streak and allow a ray of sunshine to pierce what otherwise has been a gloomy season.
So the Saints insist that they aren't looking ahead and projecting, and neither should anyone else. Here are a few ways in which they can walk away with another victory:
- If you think Drew Brees was successful in his return from a five-game absence, when he completed 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns, with an interception, against Arizona, well, Atlanta sets up just as well defensively for Brees and the Saints' offense. This season, opponents have completed 69.6 percent of their passes, for 261.1 yards per game – with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions – against the Falcons. There likely will be some space for Michael Thomas to operate. But, too, running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook return from two-game absences due to injury. The Saints will run the ball, of course (Atlanta allows 118 rushing yards per game), but the passing game could be the preferred mode of transportation Sunday.
- The Saints' secondary has shut down every challenge since Week 3 against Seattle, and even then, the Seahawks' numbers were a tad inflated (New Orleans led 27-7 entering the fourth quarter of a 33-27 victory). Atlanta definitely will challenge. Matt Ryan (2,170 passing yards, 70.9 percent completions, 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions) leads an offense that averages a league-leading 316.8 passing yards per game. Julio Jones (50-712-4) is still a handful, and tight end Austin Hooper (52-591-5) is a major problem. And receiver Calvin Ridley broke loose against the Saints as a rookie (seven catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns in Atlanta, and eight catches for 93 yards and another touchdown in New Orleans). But the Saints' pass defense is in one of its best grooves ever; in the last five games, the Saints have allowed 192.8 pass yards per game, with four touchdowns, two interceptions and 14 sacks. When the Saints have been successful against the Falcons, it's usually because the rush gets to Ryan. It'll be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Dennis Allen cooks up for the game. And, as always, watch the matchup between Jones and Saints corner Marshon Lattimore.
- Ordinarily, these games are close and with that being the case, special teams factors. Saints kicker Wil Lutz has missed three of his last six kicks. Call it a blip or whatever you like, his reliability will be needed in this one. The Falcons enter the game 9 of 14 on field-goal attempts; kicker Matt Bryant has been replaced by Younghoe Koo, who missed half of his six field-goal attempts with the Chargers in 2017, as Atlanta searches for consistency. New Orleans has an advantage here. Also, the Saints have been known to block a punt (or two) in the series, so it wouldn't be a total surprise if New Orleans went after one Sunday.
- Time of possession could be a key category because partly, one of New Orleans' best defenses could be its offense. The Saints average 33:18 in time of possession, third-best in the league, and three times this season has held on to the ball for at least 36:04. Third-down conversions will be big (Falcons opponents convert 53 percent of the time); Atlanta's offense can't score from the sideline.