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Saints vs. Falcons: Five things to watch

Saints trying to stay on top of NFC South

1.    SPOILER ALERT. The Atlanta Falcons (2-8) aren't going anywhere. It's been a wreck of a season for a team that expected to contend for the NFC title this year. So the New Orleans Saints' NFC South Division foes would love nothing more than to hand a damaging loss to their bitter rivals. Atlanta has lost four straight and seven of eight. Opponents have scored 31.7 points per game in those losses – none have scored fewer than 27 and in the three home losses at the Georgia Dome, opponents have scored 30, 30 and 33 points, respectively. Don't expect the Falcons to be so docile Thursday night; at least, not early and not against a rival. The Saints are expecting to get Atlanta's best effort.

2.    DEAD LEGS. This will be New Orleans' third game in 11 days. It's not as if the team hasn't gone through this kind of stretch before, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The physical restoration process included more mental reps than physical work at practice this week so hopefully – for the Saints – they won't have a sluggish start on the road. The longer Atlanta hangs around, the more confidence it will get and the more it will believe it can spring an upset.

3.    ROAD SHOW. In consecutive weeks, the Saints' defense allowed 193 yards to Dallas and 196 yards to San Francisco. It's the first time since the first two weeks of the 2000 season that consecutive opponents have been held to fewer than 200 yards, and it's just another example of how outstanding the Saints' defense has been this season. If there's a footnote, it's that both of those efforts occurred at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where New Orleans is undefeated this season. Can the Saints take that defensive show on the road? Atlanta, during its four-game losing streak (three of the losses on the road), has averaged 15 points per game. The Falcons' offensive arsenal has been limited all season (star receiver Julio Jones is out, running back Steven Jackson has been hobbled by injury and receiver Roddy White just recently returned to the lineup). Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likely will have something special for the Falcons.

4.    MOVING TARGET. Undoubtedly, opponents believed that if they could take away tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints' offense would struggle. Graham, in fact, has been held to 11 catches for 100 yards and no touchdowns in the last two games. But true to the words of offensive players, the wealth has been spread. Receiver Marques Colston has 12 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown the last two games, Robert Meachem has three catches for 95 yards, Kenny Stills has caught four passes for 86 yards, and on and on. Eleven players caught passes from Drew Brees against the 49ers, and nine did so against Dallas. When the Saints say any given day can be a breakout day for any receiver, they mean it.

5.    NEXT MAN UP. Cornerback Corey White will inherit the starting job vacated by Jabari Greer, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against San Francisco. Greer was having one of his better seasons so White will have some sizable cleats to fill. But he was more than solid against the Niners, coming away with an interception in the win. His only glaring mistake was returning it 43 yards and fumbling away the football as he dived for the pylon; instead of a touchdown for the Saints, it was a touchback and the Niners retained possession. White's ascension will be softened by the return of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro. Ryan believes in playing his best players so he doesn't mind using three-safety lineups (Vaccaro, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper). But cornerback/safety Chris Carr could be in line for more snaps in the secondary.

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