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NFL Preview - Atlanta (1-1) at New Orleans (2-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The title race in the NFC South left much to be desired in 2009, with the New Orleans Saints opening up a three-game lead on the Atlanta Falcons by early November and clinching the division championship on Dec. 6th.
If that pattern is to be altered, the Falcons could have much to say about it when they visit the Louisiana Superdome to meet New Orleans on Sunday.
Atlanta played to mixed results over the season's first two weeks, falling in disappointing fashion (15-9 in overtime) at the Steelers on opening day before rebounding in a major way last Sunday.
The Falcons' 41-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals calmed any lingering fears about the offense, which rolled up 444 yards and generated a whopping 33 first-downs, even with running back Michael Turner limited to nine carries due to a groin injury. The Cardinals had no answer for backup Jason Snelling, who racked up 186 total yards (129 rushing, 57 receiving) on 29 touches (24 carries, 5 receptions) and scored three touchdowns.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, who took so much heat for failing to finish off drives in Pittsburgh during Week 1, threw three touchdown passes on a 21-of-32, 225- yard passing day.
The defense that had played well for 60 minutes in Pittsburgh before coming unglued in overtime once again gave up one major run - a Tim Hightower 80-yard second-quarter touchdown blast that accounted for the Cardinals' only points - on a day that would see Atlanta fail to allow a single third- or fourth-down conversion. The Falcons chased starter Derek Anderson from the game late, and generally prevented Larry Fitzgerald (7 receptions, 83 yards) from hurting them with big plays.
After surrendering just 22 points through the first two games, the Falcons will get a step-up in class when they take to the Superdome to face the Saints this week.
New Orleans is back on the field after a short week that followed a thrilling 25-22 win at San Francisco on Monday night.
It was a somewhat ragged effort for the Saints following a 10-day layoff, as the New Orleans offense had its moments, as usual, but also punted six times and failed to get much going in the running game for a second straight week. Just eight of Drew Brees' 28 completions went to wide receivers, accounting for 95 of his 254 yards through the air.
Even more damagingly, running back Reggie Bush was sidelined for at least a month after suffering a broken fibula on a second-half punt return,
Defensively, the Saints forced four critical turnovers but also had major trouble slowing running back Frank Gore (168 total yards, 2 TD) and quarterback Alex Smith (23-of-32 passing, 275 yards, 1 TD, 28 rushing yards), who rallied the team to tie at 22-22 before Garrett Hartley ended the game with a 37-yard field goal. The 49ers, who scored just six points at Seattle in Week 1, finished the Monday night encounter with 24 first-downs and 417 yards of total offense.
Atlanta leads the all-time regular season series with New Orleans, 44-37, but has lost three straight matchups and seven of the last eight against the Saints. New Orleans swept last year's home-and-home, taking a 35-27 Monday night contest at the Superdome in Week 8, then prevailing by a 26-23 count at the Georgia Dome in Week 14. The Falcons last beat the Saints in 2008, a 34-20 win in Atlanta, and is 0-6 in New Orleans since last winning there in 2002. The Falcons' lone road win over the Saints since '02 came in San Antonio in 2005, a game that was relocated from New Orleans due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
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.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 7-1 against the Falcons as a head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith is 1-3 against both Payton and the Saints as a head man.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
It looks like Turner (117 rushing yards) will play this week after missing a large chunk of the Cardinals win with a groin problem, though it would be shocking if Snelling (133 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 3 TD) isn't a major part of the festivities so soon after his breakout performance. Elsewhere in the running game, the Falcons lost running back Jerious Norwood (torn ACL) for the season earlier this week, and added ex-Giants running back Gartrell Johnson to take his roster spot. In order to pull the road upset, the team will need continued good things out of Ryan (477 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), who struggled in his only outing against the Saints last season. The former first-rounder threw for 289 yards in the team's Monday night loss at the Superdome in Week 7, but completed only 19-of-42 passes with one touchdown to three interceptions. He'll lean this week on wideout Roddy White (189 yards, 1 TD), who is tied for the NFL lead in receptions (20) through two weeks. Falcons wide receiver Michael Jenkins (shoulder), who has missed the first two contests, could make his 2010 debut this week. If not, Ryan will continue to look to veteran Brian Finneran (3 receptions), who caught a TD pass last week, and will try to get tight end Tony Gonzalez (4 receptions) more involved. The Atlanta o-line has allowed three sacks of Ryan through two games.
After a Week 1 win in which the Saints defense limited the Vikings in moving the football, Gregg Williams' defense was back to its bend-but-don't-break, turnover-forcing ways against the 49ers. The high yardage total San Francisco posted was mitigated in large part by interceptions for safety Roman Harper (11 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Tracy Porter (11 tackles, 1 INT), as well as a forced fumble by linebacker Jonathan Vilma (14 tackles, 1 INT) that was picked up by emerging safety Malcolm Jenkins (8 tackles). On the concerning side, the Saints went a second straight contest without getting a sack from its defensive end combo of Will Smith (5 tackles) and Alex Brown (3 tackles). The run-stopping group also crashed back to earth in failing to limit Gore, and Williams will be looking for more out of tackles Sedrick Ellis (5 tackles, 1 sack) and Anthony Hargrove (5 tackles) this week. The 233 yards New Orleans has surrendered on the ground so far is the second-worst figure in the league.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (491 passing yards, 3 TD) excelled against the Falcons last season, totaling 604 yards with five touchdown passes and just one interception in New Orleans' two wins over Atlanta in 2010. He'll be looking to keep that positive history rolling, and will also try to get his favorite wide receivers - Marques Colston (10 receptions), Robert Meachem (3 receptions), and Devery Henderson (5 receptions, 1 TD) - more involved than they were in San Francisco. Colston had five catches for a team-best 67 yards, including a key catch on the team's game-winning drive, but Meachem went without a reception and Henderson logged only three grabs. Tight ends Jeremy Shockey (6 receptions) and David Thomas (5 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in three catches each, with one of Thomas' going for a third-quarter touchdown. The injury to Bush is concerning, and will put more pressure on backs Pierre Thomas (117 rushing yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions) and DeShawn Wynn. Thomas did most of his damage through the air in San Francisco, catching a game-high eight passes totaling 57 yards. The team also re-signed former Redskin Ladell Betts earlier this week. The Saints are completing a league-best 74.3 percent of their passes through two weeks, and are one of two NFL teams that has yet to commit a turnover in 2010 (Redskins).
The Falcons seemed to have an eye on the Saints in the offseason, when they added a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in Dunta Robinson (9 tackles) to the fold and also placed an emphasis on improving the pass rush. So far, so good on that count, as Atlanta is one of just two NFL teams that has yet to allow a touchdown pass on the year (Baltimore), and has seen five different players post sacks through the first two weeks. First-round rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (17 tackles, 1 sack) was one of the stars of the Week 2 win over the Cardinals, notching nine tackles and a sack in just his second NFL game. The secondary was served by youth against the Cardinals, as rookie Dominique Franks (1 tackle) and second-year d-backs William Moore (2 tackles) and Christopher Owens (4 tackles) accounted for the team's three interceptions. On the negative side, the Falcons enter Week 3 ranked dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (5.9), owing to two big runs that have gone for a total of 130 yards against them over the first two weeks. The team could use more consistent work up front by the likes of tackle Peria Jerry (2 tackles), and linebackers Curtis Lofton (14 tackles, 1 sack) and Mike Peterson (7 tackles, 1 INT) must guard against the big play while working behind them.
You'll want to monitor the injury report to determine whether Turner is a viable option this week, but even if he is, those who own Snelling as a handcuff might be better off going with him. After his huge week, and with Turner still in some degree of recovery, it would be a surprise if Snelling fails to get a bunch of meaningful touches. Against a Saints defense that gives up yards, White is a must-play, Ryan is a probable play, and Gonzalez is a decent choice even if he's off to a slow start. Kicker Matt Bryant is a pretty good play, but it's not a good week to use the Atlanta defense.
On the Saints side, where Brees and Colston don't even need discussing as must- use options, Thomas has slipped into that category as well. He'll get a bigger share of the workload with Bush out. All of Brees' other targets carry considerable risk, as does somewhat erratic kicker Garrett Hartley. The New Orleans defense will remain a good play until it stops forcing turnovers.
Strange to say about a defending Super Bowl champ that is off to a 2-0 start built off wins against a pair of division favorites, but something has been missing with the Saints so far in 2010. The offense has seemed a little more tentative, the defense a little less likely to make the huge splash play. Coming off a short week, that subtle sluggishness could cost New Orleans against what appears to be a legitimate contender in the Falcons. Atlanta is determined to prove it belongs in the NFC South and Super Bowl discussions, and there's no better way to do that than to take down the defending champs. In a game that should come down to the last drive or two, look for the Falcons to have the final word.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Saints 20
09/26 02:59:05 ET