NFL Game Preview: Saints at Falcons

The Sports Xchange

December 29, 2016 at 4:07 am.

Dec 18, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley (44) goes against San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) in the first quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 41-13. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley (44) goes against San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) in the first quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 41-13. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome. TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin.

SERIES HISTORY: 95th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 49-45. After sweeping the season series a year ago, the Saints will be going for a split this year after the Falcons took a 45-32 win on Monday Night Football in Week 3 in New Orleans. Still, the Saints have had great success against the Falcons since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, going 15-6 against their long-time archrivals. The series has been defined by tight games since 1991 with 28 of those contests decided by seven points or less. The two teams also met in an NFC wild-card game in 1991 with the Falcons prevailing 27-20 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to move on to the divisional round.

GAMEDATE: 1/1/2017

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons have won the NFC South and can earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win or losses by both Seattle and Detroit.

The Falcons victimized the Saints’ linebacker corps in their previous meeting. Devonta Freeman ran for a season-high 152 yards on 14 carries that night as the Falcons amassed 217 yards rushing. He also led the Falcons with five receptions for 55 yards.

Since then, the Saints have released middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and placed weakside linebacker Stephone Anthony (knee) on injured reserve. Dannell Ellerbe, Craig Robertson and safety Roman Harper started last week against Tampa Bay in a nickel package.

“They are not allowing the explosive plays,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “They are playing good run defense. We recognize that it’s going to be a battle.”

Regardless how much running there is, this game will feature two of the best QBs in the league — Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New Orleans’ Drew Brees.

Ryan is getting mention as a league MVP candidate. He has completed 346 of 498 passes for 4,613 yards, 34 touchdowns and seven interceptions and has a passer rating of 115.5 that leads the league. Among quarterbacks who average 9 yards per attempt, Ryan’s 69.5 seasonal completion percentage is third all-time behind Slingin’ Sammy Baugh (1945) and Joe Montana (1989).

Brees is 37 and still playing at a high level. He has completed 442 of 623 passes (70.9 percent) for 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and has a 103.1 passer rating.

The Falcons rank second in total offense and lead the league in scoring while the Saints are 25th in yards allowed and 30th in scoring defense. The Falcons are second in passing yards and seventh in rushing, which means the Saints will have their hands full even though they have done a much better job against the run this season.


–Saints OTs Andrus Peat and Zach Strief vs. Falcons LB Vic Beasley. Beasley has been a terror in his second NFL season, with a league-leading 14.5 sacks, so the No. 1 priority for Peat and Strief will be in keeping Beasley from coming off the edge and getting a free run at Drew Brees. Beasley didn’t record a sack in the first matchup on Sept. 26, so Peat and Strief will have to be at their best, and perhaps get some tight end help, to keep that record intact in the rematch.

–Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Saints LCB Sterling Moore. The Saints were without their top cover cornerback in Delvin Breaux, who was sidelined by a fractured fibula, but they still did a solid job on Jones, allowing just one reception for 16 yards on seven targets. Moore, who has held his own against some of the league’s top wide receivers while Breaux has been out, had a lot to do with keeping Jones down and will have to do it again because Breaux is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints DE Cameron Jordan. Teammates think Jordan was snubbed in the Pro Bowl voting. He will be trying to finish the season on a strong note. After a pair of double-digit sack, Pro Bowl seasons, Jordan produced another solid season with 7.5 sacks. He also ranks fifth on the team with 64 tackles and has been one of the keys to a much-improved run defense. The Saints rank 13th at 98.9 yards per game after finishing 31st a year ago. The six-year veteran also has broken up four passes and has one forced fumble.

FAST FACTS: Saints QB Drew Brees has passed for 4,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in NFL history. … Saints RB Mark Ingram has scored six TDs (five rushing) in the past four meetings. … Saints WR Brandin Cooks has 1,154 yards receiving, his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. … Saints WR Michael Thomas leads NFL rookies in receptions (82) and yards (981) and is tied for first with eight TD catches. … Saints LB Craig Robertson has 107 tackles, his first 100-tackle season. … Saints S Jairus Byrd had two interceptions last week, his sixth career multi-INT game. … Falcons QB Matt Ryan leads the NFL with a 115.5 passer rating and is third with 4,613 yards and 34 TDs. … Falcons WR Julio Jones ranks second in the NFC with 1,313 yards receiving. … Falcons LB Deion Jones and S Keanu Neal are the only two rookies with at least 100 tackles each (100 each exactly).

PREDICTION: With last Sunday’s TD passes to Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea, Falcons QB Matt Ryan has distributed his 34 TDs to 13 receivers. No quarterback in NFL history has hit that many TD targets in one season. He should target a bye week with a regular-season flourish.

OUR PICK: Falcons, 42-26.

–Frank Cooney