Two months ago, I wrote about how the Falcons had a golden opportunity in front of them to grab a stranglehold of the NFC South. They had just come off a thrilling Sunday night victory over the Eagles, while both Cam Newton and Drew Brees went down with significant injuries in losses. The Falcons were tied atop the division with their rival quarterbacks out for the next eight weeks. Saying they failed to take advantage of that opportunity is a gross understatement.
Atlanta has not won a single game since. Not only are they losing, but they are getting crushed, no matter the quality of the team they face. The defense lacks talent, but they also have no idea what their assignments are. The offense isn’t as unwatchable, but it still lacks identity, featuring one of the worst running attacks in the league. And for special teams? Well, let’s just say, Keith Armstrong wasn’t the issue. The Falcons fatal flaws have been highlighted, while the Saints have shown a resiliency that you cannot help but admire.
Since losing Brees, the Saints haven’t lost a game, winning six in a row and notching a few impressive victories under their belt. New Orleans went on the road and defeated the Seahawks and Bears while holding the Cowboys to ten points in a win at the Superdome. This is a well-built squad that can win in several different ways, which is critical come the playoffs, and now they have Drew Brees back.
Brees returned for Week 8’s matchups against the Cardinals without any rust. The future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer completed over 70% of his passes, tossing for 373 yards and three touchdowns, as the Saints routed Arizona 31-9. They are a force to be reckoned with, and they are going to relish beating the breaks off their arch-rivals if they can.
For the Falcons to stop that from happening, you have to think it is going to be the Matt Ryan show, assuming he returns this Sunday as expected. Dirk Koetter has been unable to bring any creativity to the running game, making Devonta Freeman look like a washed-up towel. Freeman’s best days may be behind him, but he’s not the reason the Falcons rank fourth to last in running the football. The Saints also don’t give up much on the ground, ranking fourth in the NFL in rush defense, but they are much more vulnerable through the air. Of course, a lot of Ryan being successful is going to be dependent on if he has time.
The Saints can get after the passer, racking up 24 sacks through eight games, and the Falcons have holes across the offensive line. Their rookie offensive guard, Chris Lindstrom, has been out since Week 1. Their rookie right tackle, Kaleb McGary, has shown promise, but he’s far from a sure thing at this point on the outside. Even Alex Mack and Jake Mathews – two pro-bowlers from a year ago – have seen dips in production. If they can provide Ryan time, the Falcons have a chance, but that’s a tough ask for a battered group, with tons of inexperience in one of the loudest places in the NFL.
Defensively, Atlanta’s not going to be able to stop New Orleans continuously. They are too good not to score 20+ points, and it’s going to take some inspired football to prevent them from scoring well over 30. But if there’s one game this group might get up for, it is this one. Pride is the only thing the Falcons have left to play for, and while they haven’t shown much of it this season, the Saints might be able to force it out of them.
Throw the records out the door; these two teams are always fun to watch when Drew Brees and Matt Ryan take the field. I know there are several fans out there that want to embrace the tank. I’ve never been able to do that, but I won’t blame anybody who does. What I will say, however, if you’re not rooting for the Falcons this weekend, you need to find another wagon. This is a game with pure, old-fashioned hate between two different cultures that can’t stand each other. It’s a rivalry that I’ve loved being a part of, and I will never wish anything but the worst for that team in Lousiana. The Falcons can stroll through the motions every other game the rest of the year, but if a matchup in New Orleans doesn’t give them some energy, the issues run way deeper than we can even imagine.
Since 2010, the Saints own the series 11-7, but the Falcons hold the all-time series lead at 52-48. If there is one game the Falcons could win to make this season not feel so miserable, it’s this one. Unfortunately, they are going to need a miracle for that to happen. I’m just looking for the energy – a sense of pride that has been missing all season.