Sunday, December 26, 2010

Week Sixteen Preview: Chasing Atlanta

Back in Week Three, I predicted that a New Orleans Saints loss to the Atlanta Falcons could be the difference between a first round bye and having to settle for a wild-card spot.

Thirteen weeks later and voila!

As the Saints enter the penultimate game of the 2010 NFL regular season, the Black and Gold finds itself likely going to the playoffs, but not in the preferred manner.

Since kicker Garrett Hartley missed on THAT occasion, the Saints have been staring at red and black tail-feathers the entire season. And a win by the Saints in the Georgia Dome, a place where the Dirty Birds haven’t lost a game all season, will help the defending world champions’ swagger, but might be irrelevant in terms of the NFC South division.

Without getting too detailed, the Saints need to beat both Atlanta and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while the Falcons must also lose in their final game against the hapless Carolina Panthers.

I’ll take “Things That Aren’t Going to Happen” for $1000 Alex.

More than likely, the Monday Night Football game could end up being the first of two trips by the Saints to the Georgia Dome before the Super Bowl is played in Jerry Jones’s palace sans Jerry Jones’s team.

A win by the Saints on Sunday would assure the team of faring no worse than being the 5th seed in the NFC, which would still give them a shot at hosting the conference championship game. More than likely, Saints season ticket holders who “invested” in 2010 playoff tickets will have done nothing more than made an early deposit on next year’s season tickets, AKA provide Tom Benson with an interest-free loan.

Atlanta is arguably the best team in the NFC, if not in the entire league. They have the same record as the AFC’s supermen, the New England Patriots, and are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, having the NFL’s 5th best offense in points scored (26.4) per game and the 7th best defense in points (18.6) allowed per game.

Led by quarterback Matt Ryan and possessing the league’s 5th ranked running back in rushing yards (Michael Turner- 1,256) and the league’s top wide-out in receiving yards (Roddy White- 1,284), the Falcons’ offense can slice opposing defenses in the air and the ground.

Atlanta’s defense is almost as good. Defensive end John Abraham is in his 11th season and has shown he still has it in him to make big plays. The veteran defensive lineman is third in the NFL in sacks with 12. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton leads his team in tackles with 87 solos and has forced three fumbles, made two sacks and has an interception.

The Falcons’ defense has had more success stopping the run (106.1 yards per game, 12th in the league) than they have containing the pass (226.8 yards per game, 21st).

The Black and Gold defense is going to have their hands full with Ryan, Turner, White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is second on the team in receptions with 62 and touchdown receptions (5).

While White had a relatively pedestrian game against the Saints (5 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown) in their earlier meeting this season, it was Gonzalez and Turner who victimized the Black and Gold defense. Turner ran for 114 yards on 30 carries (3.8) and a touchdown while the veteran tight end had eight receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown.

It should be noted that Ryan was not picked off once; the same could not be said for number Nine.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for a lot of yards (365) and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice, which tends to happen when your quarterback accounts for too much of your team’s offense.

The Saints rushed for a mere 43 yards in the same game where running back Pierre Thomas was injured. The game wasn’t good for future star running back Chris Ivory, who rushed for all 13 yards on 7 (!) carries and coughed a fumble up to the Falcons’ defense.

Since that most unfortunate performance, the undrafted rookie fill-in has emerged as the team’s leading running back in 2010, going from a last-ditch substitute to a key component in the offense. After straining his hamstring against the Saint Louis Rams and sitting out the entire game at Baltimore last Sunday, it appears the hard running half-back will play in Atlanta on Monday Night Football.

The key for the Saints is to keep their defense off the field by trying to re-establish a balanced offense by reintroducing the running game. Too much of Brees will inevitably lead to too picks.

Defensively, they need to stop Turner from having big runs while not allowing Gonzalez to beat them.

404 v. 504

The Falcons lead the Saints in the series, 45-37 though head coach Sean Payton has only lost the Falcons twice in nine games.

What Say the Numbers

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Falcons as 2-point favorite. I know Atlanta is playing with a lot of momentum and that they’re home and that they’re playing for the first seed, etc., etc., etc. but I think with the Black and Gold’s full complement of running backs playing together and a need to make a statement, I see the Saints winning this game straight-up…and I’ve been more bear than bull on the them this season.

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