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NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-2) at New Orleans (6-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - On Monday night at the Louisiana Superdome, the visiting Atlanta Falcons will be trying to stop the freight train that is the New Orleans Saints. Should they fail in that quest, Matt Ryan and company might have to watch as the Saints steamroll their way to an NFC South title.
The Saints, who will on Monday be looking for their first 7-0 start since 1991, would own a three-game lead over the Falcons with a victory, including a head-to-head win over Atlanta, their closest division competitor. And given the way New Orleans has played thus far, it would be hard to imagine Sean Payton's club relinquishing that type of lead.
New Orleans entered Week 8 leading the NFL with a whopping 39.7 points per game, nearly 10 points more than the next-highest-scoring team in the league. The Saints' attack is also the NFL pace-setter in total offense (427.3 yards per game), touchdowns (31), and is tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12).
The Saints' 46-34 win over the Dolphins last Sunday marked the fourth time in their six games this season that New Orleans had scored more than 40 points, though it was an underrated defense that contributed two of the most important touchdowns to their final total.
Free safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Tracy Porter both took back Chad Henne interceptions for touchdowns in the second half of the win, as New Orleans outscored pesky Miami, 36-10, over the final 30 minutes of the contest.
The effort was a microcosm of the work the Saints' playmaking defense has done during a 2009 season in which New Orleans is tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (18), interceptions (13), and is allowing opponents to complete a league-low 52.4 percent of their passes.
The Falcons don't enter Monday night's game from the same position of strength, though a win against the formidable Saints could certainly enhance their status.
Atlanta is one week removed from a disappointing 37-21 loss at Dallas, a game that saw the Falcons have trouble containing Tony Romo and the Cowboys passing attack.
Romo completed 21-of-29 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns in the win, with two of those going to emerging Cowboys wideout Miles Austin.
Ryan and the Falcons attack were not able to match Dallas score-for-score, as three turnovers by the sophomore quarterback (two INT, one fumble) hampered Atlanta's efforts. Ryan, who had been sacked just twice during the team's 4-1 start, was dropped four times by the Cowboys.
Atlanta leads the all-time regular season series with New Orleans, 44-35, including a conventional home-and-home split last season. The Falcons were 34-20 winners when the teams met at the Georgia Dome in Week 10, and dropped a 29-25 decision to the Saints in the Superdome during Week 14. New Orleans has won five of the last six in the series, including home-and-home sweeps of their NFC South rival in both 2006 and 2007. The Falcons are 0-3 in series road games since beating New Orleans in San Antonio in 2005, and are 0-5 in New Orleans since last winning there in 2002.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have faced off once in the postseason, with Atlanta winning a 27-20 road affair in a 1991 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Payton is 5-1 against the Falcons as a head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith is 1-1 against both Payton and the Saints as a head man.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
After getting off to a hot start to his sophomore campaign, Ryan (1360 passing yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) has not been at his sharpest over the past two outings. The former first-rounder has posted two consecutive sub-70.0 passer ratings, been held under 200 yards by both the Bears and Cowboys, and thrown four interceptions to counter his four touchdown passes over that span. Primary targets Roddy White (33 receptions, 5 TD) and Tony Gonzalez (27 receptions, 3 TD) combined for just 87 receiving yards in last week's loss to the Cowboys, though White did find the end zone for the third consecutive game. Kick returner Eric Weems (2 receptions, 1 TD) may have earned himself some more playing time with the offense as well, taking his third career reception in for a 30-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. The Atlanta running game is a disappointing 19th in the NFL (102.8 yards per game), with Michael Turner (403 rushing yards, 7 TD) not putting up the same type of numbers witnessed during his Pro Bowl season of 2008. Turner was held to 50 yards on 18 carries by the Cowboys, but did score his seventh touchdown of the season. No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood (78 rushing yards, 8 receptions) missed the Dallas game with a hip injury and is questionable for Monday.
Ryan will have to stay away from turnovers against a Saints team that, as mentioned, has forced mistakes as well as any team in the league. The playmaking generally comes from the secondary, where Sharper leads the league in picks (6), interception return yards (317), and pick-six touchdowns (3). Porter (28 tackles, 2 INT), whose key INT-and-score against the Dolphins sealed last week's game, will likely match up with White, with Jabari Greer (30 tackles, 1 INT) opposite him. Ends Will Smith (15 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Charles Grant (15 tackles, 4 sacks) will attempt to pressure Ryan. The Saints are a solid eighth in the league against the run (92.3 yards per game), but that standing could be difficult to maintain with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis expected to be out with a knee problem. Anthony Hargrove (17 tackles, 2 sacks) and Remi Ayodele (8 tackles, 1 sack) will likely play the bulk of the snaps at tackle, and linebackers Jonathan Vilma (36 tackles, 1 sack) and Scott Shanle (38 tackles, 2 INT) will be among those working behind them.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Dolphins did to Brees (1698 passing yards, 14 TD, 5 INT) what few have been able to, pressuring the clinically-accurate quarterback into three interceptions and five sacks absorbed. Still, Miami was unable to hold the reigning NFL offensive player of the year in check for four quarters, and Brees finished 22-of-38 passing for 298 yards and a third-quarter touchdown pass to Marques Colston (30 receptions, 5 TD). Brees also rushed for a pair of critical touchdowns in the win. Colston and fellow wideout Devery Henderson (19 receptions, 1 TD) both had 70-plus receiving yards in the triumph, and tight end Jeremy Shockey (26 receptions, 3 TD) posted four catches for a game- high 105 yards. The Saints have given near-equal carries to Mike Bell (343 rushing yards, 2 TD) and Pierre Thomas (314 rushing yards, 3 TD), with Reggie Bush (175 rushing yards, 3 TD, 18 receptions) used primarily as a third-down back. Bell carried 12 times for a team-high 80 yards last week, and Bush made one of his six offensive touches count for his third touchdown of the year.
Obviously, directive number one for the Falcons defense will be slowing down the Saints passing attack, and the job Atlanta did against Tony Romo and the Cowboys last week can't be filling the team with confidence heading into Monday's battle. Cornerbacks Brent Grimes (14 tackles), Chris Houston (24 tackles, 1 INT), and Chevis Jackson (6 tackles) will be among the players trying to slow the Saints fleet of receivers, and safeties Erik Coleman (47 tackles) and Thomas DeCoud (31 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) figure to have their hands full as well. Grimes had a recovery of a Felix Jones fumble last week against Dallas, while Coleman and DeCoud combined for a whopping 23 tackles. The Falcons pass rush will be fighting an uphill battle against the quick- firing Brees, but John Abraham (16 tackles, 3 sacks) will be among those trying to do the impossible. Atlanta enters Week 8 ranked just 23rd in the league against the run (117.7 yards per game), but limited Dallas' Marion Barber to 47 yards on 14 carries last week. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (62 tackles) and Mike Peterson (40 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) have been among the team's top tacklers, and tackle Jonathan Babineaux (12 tackles) is among the club's most active players at the point of attack.
With just 403 yards and a 3.4 average per carry, Turner has been something of a real-life disappointment, though with at least one touchdown in each of his last five games, fantasy owners haven't found much reason to remove him from their lineups. Elsewhere on the Atlanta side, White has been a consistent point-producer, and Gonzalez a contributor as well. Ryan is a backup at the moment due to a propensity for interceptions and passing yardage numbers generally at or near the low-200s. Don't get anywhere near the Atlanta defense this week.
On the New Orleans side, if you own Brees, Colston, Shockey, the New Orleans defense, or kicker John Carney, you're starting them. The committee approach at running back is somewhat problematic for fantasy owners, but both Bell and Thomas figure to get 10-15 touches and Bush tends to play better when the lights are brightest.
There should be little doubt that this is one the Falcons have had circled on their calendar for weeks. New Orleans has received a great deal of publicity for its red-hot start, while Atlanta - the preseason pick by many to win the NFC South - has seemingly been a forgotten team. A win by the Falcons would keep their own fate within the division in their own hands, and Atlanta is certainly talented enough to give the Saints some problems. That said, no team has kept the Saints offense in check for four quarters, and the Falcons don't look like a candidate to be the first. Atlanta was very vulnerable in pass defense in their losses to the Patriots and Cowboys, and that's not a good sign against the clinically-accurate Brees. The Falcons will play hard and hang around until the fourth quarter, but they'll give up one too many big plays to win the game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Falcons 20
10/29 22:36:53 ET