Thursday, September 23, 2010

Week 3 Preview: Saints Host the Falcons

The New Orleans Saints, after a short week that was even shorter since the team didn’t land in Kenner from San Francisco until the next day, will face their archrival on Sunday afternoon when the Atlanta Falcons swoop into the Superdome.

Any game against Atlanta has great meaning to Who Dats, even when the Saints have been eliminated from the playoff picture. Defeating the Dirty Birds has been the shred of solace many Saints fans have clung to during the bad seasons.

But this particular matchup has more meaning than emotion. It could very well be the biggest regular season game the Black and Gold plays in the 2010 season.

Forget the trip to Palace in Dallas on Thanksgiving afternoon. Nevermind the Halloween night face off with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sunday’s game with the Falcons is last season’s Patriots’ game.

Though the Black and Gold currently lead the Falcons in the NFC South, with the Saints being 2-0 and the Falcons 1-1, the Saints will have an opportunity to extend their lead by 1.5 with a win or slip behind Atlanta by a half-game if they lose.

While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also 2-0, their early success THUS FAR has been attributed to facing weak opponents. The Bucs will face their first tough game on Sunday when they host the Steelers on Sunday.

Most people who follow the game recognize that Atlanta is the only team standing in the way of the Saints repeating as NFC South division champions, a feat that has yet to be accomplished by any team in the division.

After losing a close one in overtime at Pittsburgh, the Falcons dominated the Arizona Cardinals in the Georgia Dome blowing out the redbirds 41-7.

Atlanta is a much better team in 2010 than they were in 2009 having made big investments in defense in this years draft, most notably landing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a player the Saints coveted, with the 19th overall selection.

In the Arizona game, the Falcons defense snagged three interceptions and Weatherspoon led his team with eight tackles and got one of the Falcons’ two sacks. The Atlanta offense ran all over the Cardinals defense, accumulating 221 yards on the ground. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan connected on over 66% of his passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns.

The Dirty Birds will not be pushovers.

If the Saints were to drop the game, the Falcons would have a temporary head-up tie-breaker advantage until the two teams meet again, December 27th on Monday Night Football in the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons were 6-2 at home in 2009 and 7-1 in 2008. The Saints do not want to have to play for the division championship in the Georgia Dome two nights after Christmas.

Thus far in the 2010 season, the Saints offense has not been the powerhouse they’ve been in the in recent times. They currently rank 16th in the league in points (19.5), 21st in total yards (297.5), 12th in passing yards (233) and a pitiful 31st in rushing yards (64.5).

Granted the Saints had two difficult opponents, facing the Minnesota Vikings’ potent defensive front seven in the NFL season kickoff and then taking on the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the unfriendly confines of Candlestick Park in a Monday Night Game.

The good side is that the Black and Gold defense has stepped up in a way. They rank 10th in points allowed (15.5) but 23rd in total yards surrendered (335) giving up an average of 218.5 in the air and 116.5 on the ground.

Can the Saints offense finally breakout against an improved Atlanta defense?

Will the Saints’ front seven contain Atlanta’s running game?

Will the Saints ground game finally gain some traction in Week 3 with running back Reggie Bush out?

Can the Saints offensive line give quarterback Drew Brees the protection he needs to connect the long ball with his receiving corps?

Will running backs Ladell Betts and Chris Ivory establish a strong between the tackles ground game?

One other thing worth mentioning: head coach Sean Payton has had a lot of luck against the Falcons. Under Payton’s watch, the Saints have lost to Atlanta only once (2008 in the Georgia Dome). The Falcons haven’t beaten the Saints in the Superdome since 2002, though Atlanta leads the overall series 37-44.

This game might not have the appeal of the Steelers and Cowboy games, the consequences of a loss to the Falcons on Sunday will be greater than any other game until the post-Christmas rematch.

Starting the season 2-1 might not seem like much of a hole, it could later prove to be the difference between securing a first round playoff bye and settling for a wild card spot.

What Say the Boys in Vegas?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan favors New Orleans by four. Take the points. I predicted just before the regular season kickoff that Atlanta would continue the revolving state of NFC South division champions and this is the game the Dirty Birds stake their claim. Also the short week won't help the Black and Gold.

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