Saints (6-3-0) vs. Failcons (4-3-0) Georgia Dome, Sunday, Nov. 12, 12 pm C.D.T. (Fox)
Week 9 Recap: Saints beat Bucs 27-16; Falcons beat Colts 31-7
The NFC South's oldest and fiercest rivalry takes the field Sunday to battle for the lead in the Division. As always, the biannual grudge match promises to open old wounds and create more ill will between two teams and their fanbases that hate each other like poison. So what's new?
The level of inconsistency and uncertainty about each team's trajectory this year adds a unique element to their record of hard-fought, close battles which Sunday will certainly repeat. In recent years, either the Saints or Falcons went into the contest as the Heir Apparent to the NFC South Title with the other team playing the role of Usurper. This year, the Saints and Falcons have played so inconsistently and uncharacteristically at times that both NFL analysts and fans are left wondering whether the elevator's going up or down.
The Saints followed up their jaw-dropping 62-7 beatdown of the Colts Oct. 23 that set a new record for the Largest Margin of Victory in NFL history with a shocking 21-31 upset by the winless Rams. The Saints haven't had a back-to-back win since a four-game streak Weeks 2-6. After a 2-3 start, the Falcons are on a red-hot three-game winning streak which has pulled them within one game of sharing the NFC South lead with the Saints.
Despite his team's improved record, Falcon QB Matt Ryan has struggled this season, passing for 1,958 yards (18th) and an 83.3 QBR (18th); in 2010, Ryan was the 9th leading passer (3,705) with the 11th best QBR (91.) Ryan's already thrown the same number of INTs so far this year (9) that he threw in 2010.
Ryan's success this season has been hurt by poor protection from his Offensive Line--as has Drew Brees. Last year, the Falcons' and Saints' OLines were two of the best in the NFL in QB protection, ranking 3rd and 6th respectively. This season, that's dropped to 16th (Falcons) and 19th (Saints.) Going into Week 10, both Ryan and Brees have been sacked 19 times, 6th most in the NFL. That's just 4 less than Ryan hit the field in 2010, 6 less than Brees did.
The Falcons' improved Defense has fueled their winning streak. In their first five games, the Falcons allowed averages of 26.0 points and 383.4 yards. Since then, they've held opponents to 13.3 points and 272.3 yards per game in their last outings. The Falcons are 7th in INTs with 10. They'll have a big test this week against the Saints, the NFL's #1 overall Offense. The Saints lead with 445.1 YPG and are second in scoring (31.9 PPG).
Although ranked seventh in Rushing Defense, the Falcons have improved to fourth since October averaging 87.2 per game. The Saints' rushing attack averages 126 YPG, 9th in the NFL. Moreover, the Saints are 6-0 this season when they rush for over 100 yards and 0-3 when held to less. When the Saints have rushed for 120+ yards under Coach Sean Payton, they're 25-1.
"We've got to get a run game going," Saints' left G Carl Nicks said.
The Saints are optimistic Rookie RB Mark Ingram will return against the Falcons Sunday. Ingram missed the last two games nursing a heel injury sustained in the Colts game. He's limited practice this week and is listed as probable. His replacement, RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) was limited and is questionable. The rushing attack, led by Darren Sproles (347 yards) and Pierre Thomas (311), could have some trouble finding room to run
Both teams revamped their Offenses in the offseason by adding big playmakers who weren't on the roster last year. The Falcons drafted WR Julio Jones to join Michael Turner and Roddy White in their arsenal, while the Saints acquired RB Darren Sproles from San Diego to upgrade their backfield.
The Saints announced the addition of Sproles 24 hours after trading RB Reggie Bush to Miami for DB Jonathon Amaya (and a Pizza Hut pizza.) Sproles has erased any questions that he could replace the directionally-challenged De-Heismanned One. In addition to 446 Receiving yards and 347 rushing yards, the versatile seventh-year veteran has 551 yards on Kick Returns and 155 yards on Punt Returns. He leads the NFL in All-Purpose Yardage and is second in catches (56.)
Jones is the first Rookie since the NFL's 1970 merger to have TD catches of 50+ and 80+ yards in the same game (the first two TDs of his career.) A hamstring injury sidelined Jones for two games, but he came back last week with three catches for 131 yards against Colts. After missing two games with a strained left hamstring, Julio Jones had three catches for a season-high 131 yards last Sunday.
"It gives us another good player, another good option to have the football in his hands," said QB Matt Ryan. "He's a good player, and we're certainly better when we have him."
Then there's Saints' TE Jimmy Graham. When the two teams met last year, the Saints relied on TE Jeremy Shockey who mentored Graham, a Rookie with only one year of college football experience after playing basketball at the University of Miami. Graham's emerging talent caused the Saints to release Shockey in the offseason. Now the second-year man leads all NFL tight ends with 55 catches for 791 yards and is third in the NFL in catches, right behind his teammate Sproles.
Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's record for most passing yardage in a season. The NFL's leading passer has thrown for 3,004 yards passing to become the first NFL player to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark in the first nine games of a season. Last week he also tied with Brett Favre for the second-longest TD streak in NFL history after throwing a TD in 36 straight games.
"This is a pretty critical time for us, this month of November," said Drew Brees. "It's a time when a lot of teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and we want to be one of those teams. And this is when you want to be on a roll, so hopefully this is the start of that."
Historically the Saints have taken care of business in November with a an NFL-best nine straight November games win record going back to 2009. The Falcons are on a six-game November win streak including last week's victory over the Colts.
The Saints and Falcons split their two matchups last season. When the two teams last met Dec. 27, Brees' six-yard TD pass to Jimmy Graham with 3:24 left gave the Saints a 17-14 win in Atlanta. Since Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans, the Saints have won eight of 10 games. Brees has thrown for 3,010 yards and 20 TDs in the series. The Saints have won four of five at the Georgia Dome, including the last two straight. The Falcons only have two other losses in their last 22 regular-season home games.
The latest chapter in the Saints/Falcon feud was written in last season's Dec. 27 Monday Night Football game. Earlier that week, Falcon WR Roddy White tweeted that the defending World Champion Saints won Superbowl XLIV "by the grace of God" so that the "city wouldn't fall apart" after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The remark outraged Katrina survivors, Saints fans, and the team. After the Saints beat the Falcons 17-14, Saints players danced on the Falcons' logo on the Georgia Dome field and even posed for photos on top of it. Former Saints DT Remi Ayodele commented that the Saints did it in response to White's comments as the ultimate sign of disrespect to the Falcons.
After word of the incident spread in the Falcon locker room, DE John Abraham got angry. “We can never let that happen again,’’ he said.
Reporters asked both teams about the incident this week, though neither would comment. For a change, even Roddy White kept his mouth shut. "They came down here and got a W,’’ he said. “They can kind of do whatever they want to do. That's kind of what happens. When we won down there, we kind of went on the field. It happens. We kind of did our thing when we went down there and won the game. They won, so congratulations to them.’’
We'll see how much bad blood spills out on to the field Sunday. One thing's for sure: it's going to be a close one. It always is.
Prediction: Despite the fact that the Falcons (and their fans) are the most classless, wretched, despicable bunch of hatahs in the NFL who would lie, cheat, steal, and kill their own grandma to win a game against the Fulton County School for the Blind, the Saints bring out the best in them. Like the zombies that roam the streets of Atlanta on AMC's "The Walking Dead," the Falcons will refuse to die until Drew Brees puts a bullet in their beaks late in the 4th Quarter. Now the Saints WILL have to run hog-wild Sunday to put enough distance on the scoreboard to give Falcon fans (and players) something to really cry about before lights out on their cell blocks. In the end, Saints prevail, Falcons fail. Saints 24-17.