Thursday Night Football Breakdown – Saints @ Falcons

Week 14 starts tomorrow which means the beginning of fantasy football playoffs for some and the beginning of a push for the reality playoffs for others. This week’s Thursday night offering is a divisional showdown featuring one of the truly underrated rivalries in the NFL. In 2006, ESPN writer Len Pasquarelli said, “Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities. Unless you’ve attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you’ll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be.” That’s good enough for us, Len!

New Orleans Saints (9-3) @ Atlanta Falcons (7-5); Line: Saints by 1

Chris is out this week, but Danny and Brad have you covered. What to watch for:

Danny’s take: The Falcons have been a difficult team to predict all season. They’ve been up and down all season and I have a hard time trying to decide whether or not they are for real. Offensively they are as talented as any team in the NFL, but that talent has not always shown up on the field this year. Their offense is currently ranked 8th in yards and 14th in points due their inconsistency on the field. The best explanation for the Falcon’s decline in performance from 2016 is turnovers. The team is -6 in turnover differential which is likely a product of playing from behind more often this season. Defensively the Falcons are surprisingly ranked 8th in terms of yards and 11th in terms of scoring. The Falcons’ inability to control the ball is the best explanation for their current record and this is why I don’t see them pulling this game off against the Saints.

The Saints don’t turn the ball over often and are +3 in turnover differential. They also boast the NFL’s second best offense along with the 12th ranked defense. The Saints’ offensive balance is what makes them so difficult to defend. The emergence of Alvin Kamara and the steady performance of Mark Ingram have provided Drew Brees with the support he has needed to have his best season in recent memory. Ingram is averaging 5.1 yds/carry while Kamara is averaging 7.0 yds/carry. As a team they are averaging 4.6 yds/carry which is striking for a historically pass first team. The Saints aren’t invincible however; teams with a strong defensive front seven have been able slow the Saints offense this season. Both the Rams and the Vikings were able to slow the run game and the offense in general. The Falcons’ defensive front is above average when compared with the rest of the league but I don’t think it ranks with the Vikings and Rams. I believe this game will be close, but the Saints will likely pull out a win and push the Falcons’ season to the brink.

Brad’s take: This line actually opened a half point higher so I guess the betting public is wary of the road favorite. But who could blame them after the last two prime time games where we saw highly favored Pennsylvania teams fail to cover at Seattle and at Cincy? The Saints got back into the win column last week after seeing their 8-game winning streak snapped in a tough game at fellow-NFC powerhouse Los Angeles. The relatively comfortable home win against Carolina moved their division record to 3-0 and their home record to 5-1 on the year. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram continue to make life easy for Drew Brees with incredible production running and catching the ball, but Ingram’s status for this game is listed as questionable with a sore toe (super important for running backs). Rookie sensation Marshon Lattimore also finds himself on the injury report again this week which is good news for the Falcons passing game. Aside from the “academic” part of this match up, I think you have to look at the emotional and strategic aspects. The Saints host Atlanta just 17 days later on Christmas Eve and may not be interested in laying it all on the line to get a victory on the short week against a team that trails both them AND Carolina in the NFC South. I’m not saying New Orleans is going to lay down in this game, but don’t be surprised if they play more vanilla defense than usual, rather than trying to install all the concepts they would normally like to, especially given the short prep time.

While the Saints have a healthy lead in the division and own the tiebreaker against Carolina, the Falcons are all out of mulligans. They sit outside the current playoff picture knowing that they play three of their last four against teams that are ahead of them in the standings and should definitely be the hungrier, more desperate team. They were held without a touchdown in a close loss against Minnesota and its conference-leading defense last week. It wasn’t a bad loss per se, but it came at a bad time and halted the momentum of a three-game win streak.

I think tomorrow night Atlanta finds a way to beat the banged up Saints and keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They’ve played well at home and I think they might even be favored by the time this one kicks off.

One final (not-so-serious) reason I think Atlanta springs the upset: earlier this year we learned that Atlanta’s beautiful new Mercedes-Benz Stadium would have a Chick-fil-A stand inside and people laughed because the NFL plays on Sundays and Chick-fil-A famously is not open on the Lord’s Day. Way back in August when the story broke, they mentioned just one regular season home game that wouldn’t be played on a Sunday and that day is finally here. You better believe the Falcons faithful will be fired up to pay stadium prices for fast-food chicken sandwiches! Time to Rise Up, Atlanta.