WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints can throw with anyone in the league and will try to set the wheels in motion right away against Atlanta. Brees (3,004 passing yards, 21 TD, 11 INT) has been the backbone to the New Orleans offense and has eight touchdown passes in his last three games. He hasn’t passed for 300-plus yards in back-to- back weeks, however, and needs one more performance of that nature to tie Hall of Famer Dan Fouts (51) for fifth on the all-time list. The first player in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards through the first nine games of a season, Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 36 consecutive games, tying future Hall of Famer Brett Favre for second all-time. Johnny Unitas holds the record with 47 straight games. He is 8-2 against the Falcons as a member of New Orleans and has 20 or more completions in an NFL-record 29 games in a row as well. Tight end Jimmy Graham (55 receptions, 791 yards, 5 TD) has helped Brees achieve those numbers this year and leads the team in receiving yards while ranking second in receptions. Sproles (347 rushing yards, 2 TD) has a Saints- best 56 catches for 446 yards, while Marques Colston (34 receptions, 476 yards) is tied with Sproles, Lance Moore (33 receptions) and Robert Meachem (27 receptions) with three touchdown catches. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack against the Bucs, but gave up six the week before in a loss at St. Louis.
Granted they were playing a winless Colts team, but the Falcons held them to just 186 total yards, including just 83 on the ground. Atlanta shouldn’t worry too much about the Saints trying to establish the run, but then again Payton may have a few tricks up his sleeve. The Falcons are seventh against the rush, allowing only 96.5 yards per game, and could catch a break if Ingram is still bothered by a heel ailment. Sproles will give Atlanta some trouble, though, which means linebackers Curtis Lofton (76 tackles) and Sean Weatherspoon (70 tackles, 2 sacks) will have to be on top of their game before the Saints opt to air it out. Cornerback Brent Grimes (36 tackles, 1 INT) has two picks in the Falcons’ last four meetings with the Saints. Grimes said Brees is a great quarterback and his team must be aware of his tenancies. Brees has 11 interceptions this season and is on pace to tie or even eclipse his personal high. Grimes and fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson (30 tackles) have the challenge of slowing down a myriad of New Orleans targets, especially Graham, Colston and Sproles. Sproles will give Atlanta the most fits, since he will line up practically anywhere along the offense. Safety Thomas DeCoud (40 tackles) has a team-best three interceptions.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta’s offensive line has found a way to protect Ryan lately, as evidenced by the six sacks it’s allowed over the past four games. Ryan (1,958 passing yards, 12 TD, 9 INT) has been sacked four times or more in three games this season and will be ready for heavy pressure from the New Orleans front line. Ryan has passed for 300 or more yards just twice this season, but is coming off arguably his best performance of the year at Indianapolis. He was 14-of-24 passing for 275 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception for a season-high 120.7 quarterback rating. He has posted a rating of 100-plus only twice in 2011, but is 8-1 at home against division opponents. White (43 receptions, 501 yards, 3 TD) has just two touchdown catches this season and has hit the 100-yard receiving mark only once, back in Week 3 at Tampa Bay. Maybe with the sudden emergence of Jones, White will see more balls thrown his way down the stretch. Jones (28 receptions, 489 yards, 2 TD) is one of the most talented wideouts in the game and will get his first taste of this series, while tight end Tony Gonzalez (39 receptions, 5 TD) leads the team in touchdown catches and is second behind White in receptions. Turner (692 rushing yards, 7 TD) has six rushing scores in his last five games, while the Saints are 17th against the rush (119.7 ypg). Turner needs three rushing touchdowns to pass Gerald Riggs (48) for the franchise lead.
New Orleans failed to record a turnover in last week’s win over the Buccaneers even though it had a chance to capitalize on three Tampa Bay fumbles. The Saints have a good shot of at least posting an interception, since Ryan has thrown nine already this season. However, the secondary comes into this contest a bit banged up, as starting cornerback Tracy Porter (neck) and nickel back Patrick Robinson (stomach) are both questionable. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (42 tackles, 1 sack) said how the next man will have to step up if the usual regulars in the defensive backfield are unable to go. Porter (20 tackles) was injured against the Bucs and could be replaced by Leigh Torrence (16 tackles). Rookie Johnny Patrick is the leading candidate to replace Robinson when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams goes with five defensive backs. Robinson leads the team with two interceptions. The Falcons have a lot of speed in White and Jones, and Gonzalez can be a killer in the middle. Linebackers Jo- Lonn Dunbar (43 tackles) and Scott Shanle (39 tackles) must keep Gonzalez in their sights. Safety Roman Harper (56 tackles) and defensive end Will Smith (19 tackles) lead the team with six and five sacks, respectively.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How will Atlanta’s 19th-rated pass defense fare against arguably the best aerial assault in the NFL? The Falcons’ coverage will dictate the outcome of Sunday’s game, while pressure up front by defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards can make a difference.
Sproles will have a tough time running against Atlanta’s trio of linebackers that lead the team in tackles and are highly athletic. If Graham can throw a few linebackers off guard, Sproles will be able to pounce for positive yardage.
Ryan has been impressive in the Georgia Dome throughout his young career and the Falcons are 18-0 when their quarterback has a rating of 100 or better. He is 6-0 in six November starts with a 104.7 rating to show for it. Ryan posted three touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Saints a season ago, and is 22-3 at the Georgia Dome in his career.
Prediction – A huge NFC South game, as the Falcons have found themselves the past few weeks, while the Saints scored a huge win over the Bucs last Sunday. This is make it or break it time in this division, and while the Falcons are playing well, the Saints are the second best team in the conference, and will pull out a big road win. New Orleans 28 Atlanta 21