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NFL Preview - New Orleans (6-3) at Atlanta (5-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - NFC South bragging rights will be on the line this Sunday afternoon when the Atlanta Falcons take on the division-rival New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons are a half-game back of the 6-3 Saints in the standings and can take over division supremacy with a win this weekend in the first of three straight games for the team in the Peach State. Atlanta is riding a three-game winning streak and has prevailed in four of five games since losing two of three at the start of the 2011 season.
November is an important month for teams gearing up for the playoffs, and the Falcons' 31-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts was their sixth straight win during the month. They are averaging 28 points per game over the current three- game winning streak and look to pile it on some more in front of the home crowd.
"It's definitely a big stretch coming up. Hopefully our fans will show up and our crowd will be ready to go for the next three weeks," Falcons center Todd McClure said. "It'll be nice to get on a little run right here and get hot."
Atlanta's offense just got a bit more potent with rookie wide receiver Julio Jones living up to his first-round draft status. The University of Alabama product posted his third 100-yard receiving game of the season with a career- high 131 yards and two touchdowns on just three receptions against the Colts. He had a 50-yard and an 80-yard touchdown reception, becoming the first rookie since the 1970 merger with touchdowns of 80-plus and 50-plus yards in the same game.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had been struggling some early on in the season, so any boost the offense can get will only help in the long run. Ryan said having a healthy Jones is another good option for the offense, which already has playmakers Roddy White and Michael Turner to rely on.
Atlanta will also host Tennessee and Minnesota on the homestand.
New Orleans has alternated wins and losses over its last four games since winning a season-best four in a row after a season-opening defeat at Green Bay. It is coming off last Sunday's 27-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Superdome and once again quarterback Drew Brees passed his team to a win, compiling 258 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
Brees has led the Saints to an NFL-best nine straight wins in November dating back to 2009 and is the first quarterback to eclipse the 3,000-yard passing mark this season. He expressed the importance of winning this time of year during a recent press conference.
"Through September and October you've worked out a lot of the kinks," Brees said. "You've established your identity. So by the time November rolls around, you know what type of team you are and then that's when I think teams separate themselves. I just think November's the month where there's separation between the good teams and elite."
The Saints have been riding Brees all season, and the MVP candidate is first in the NFL with 3,004 passing yards and second in the league with 21 touchdown passes, 333.8 passing yards per game, a 100.6 quarterback rating and a 71.0 completion percentage.
Brees got a new weapon in the offseason in running back Darren Sproles, who's been a monster in yards from scrimmage. Sproles serves as another passing target and will continue to see extended time if rookie running back Mark Ingram fails to shake a heel injury that has sidelined him the previous two weeks.
New Orleans leads the NFL in total offense (445.1 ypg) and is second in scoring (31.9 ppg), and will try to improve those marks against a Falcons team that has improved on defense the past few weeks. The Falcons have held opponents to 13.3 points and 272.3 yards per game in their past three outings.
Atlanta leads its overall regular-season series with New Orleans by a 45-38 count, but was a 17-14 loser when these teams last squared off at the Georgia Dome during Week 16 of last season, ending a string of 15 consecutive home victories for the Falcons in which Ryan had started. The Saints also bested the Falcons in Atlanta by a 26-23 score during the 2009 campaign, though Ryan sat out that contest due to a toe injury, and are 4-1 in their last five visits to the Georgia Dome. The Falcons did hand New Orleans a 27-24 defeat at the Superdome in Week 3 of last season, however.
These longtime division foes have also opposed one another once in the postseason, with Atlanta posting a 27-20 decision at the Superdome in a 1991 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Sean Payton is 8-2 against the Falcons during his six-year tenure as the Saints' head coach, while Atlanta's Mike Smith has gone 2-4 against both New Orleans and Payton in his present position.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints can throw with anyone in the league and will try to set the wheels in motion right away against Atlanta. Brees (3,004 passing yards, 21 TD, 11 INT) has been the backbone to the New Orleans offense and has eight touchdown passes in his last three games. He hasn't passed for 300-plus yards in back-to- back weeks, however, and needs one more performance of that nature to tie Hall of Famer Dan Fouts (51) for fifth on the all-time list. The first player in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards through the first nine games of a season, Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 36 consecutive games, tying future Hall of Famer Brett Favre for second all-time. Johnny Unitas holds the record with 47 straight games. He is 8-2 against the Falcons as a member of New Orleans and has 20 or more completions in an NFL-record 29 games in a row as well. Tight end Jimmy Graham (55 receptions, 791 yards, 5 TD) has helped Brees achieve those numbers this year and leads the team in receiving yards while ranking second in receptions. Sproles (347 rushing yards, 2 TD) has a Saints- best 56 catches for 446 yards, while Marques Colston (34 receptions, 476 yards) is tied with Sproles, Lance Moore (33 receptions) and Robert Meachem (27 receptions) with three touchdown catches. The offensive line didn't allow a sack against the Bucs, but gave up six the week before in a loss at St. Louis.
Granted they were playing a winless Colts team, but the Falcons held them to just 186 total yards, including just 83 on the ground. Atlanta shouldn't worry too much about the Saints trying to establish the run, but then again Payton may have a few tricks up his sleeve. The Falcons are seventh against the rush, allowing only 96.5 yards per game, and could catch a break if Ingram is still bothered by a heel ailment. Sproles will give Atlanta some trouble, though, which means linebackers Curtis Lofton (76 tackles) and Sean Weatherspoon (70 tackles, 2 sacks) will have to be on top of their game before the Saints opt to air it out. Cornerback Brent Grimes (36 tackles, 1 INT) has two picks in the Falcons' last four meetings with the Saints. Grimes said Brees is a great quarterback and his team must be aware of his tenancies. Brees has 11 interceptions this season and is on pace to tie or even eclipse his personal high. Grimes and fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson (30 tackles) have the challenge of slowing down a myriad of New Orleans targets, especially Graham, Colston and Sproles. Sproles will give Atlanta the most fits, since he will line up practically anywhere along the offense. Safety Thomas DeCoud (40 tackles) has a team-best three interceptions.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta's offensive line has found a way to protect Ryan lately, as evidenced by the six sacks it's allowed over the past four games. Ryan (1,958 passing yards, 12 TD, 9 INT) has been sacked four times or more in three games this season and will be ready for heavy pressure from the New Orleans front line. Ryan has passed for 300 or more yards just twice this season, but is coming off arguably his best performance of the year at Indianapolis. He was 14-of-24 passing for 275 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception for a season-high 120.7 quarterback rating. He has posted a rating of 100-plus only twice in 2011, but is 8-1 at home against division opponents. White (43 receptions, 501 yards, 3 TD) has just two touchdown catches this season and has hit the 100-yard receiving mark only once, back in Week 3 at Tampa Bay. Maybe with the sudden emergence of Jones, White will see more balls thrown his way down the stretch. Jones (28 receptions, 489 yards, 2 TD) is one of the most talented wideouts in the game and will get his first taste of this series, while tight end Tony Gonzalez (39 receptions, 5 TD) leads the team in touchdown catches and is second behind White in receptions. Turner (692 rushing yards, 7 TD) has six rushing scores in his last five games, while the Saints are 17th against the rush (119.7 ypg). Turner needs three rushing touchdowns to pass Gerald Riggs (48) for the franchise lead.
New Orleans failed to record a turnover in last week's win over the Buccaneers even though it had a chance to capitalize on three Tampa Bay fumbles. The Saints have a good shot of at least posting an interception, since Ryan has thrown nine already this season. However, the secondary comes into this contest a bit banged up, as starting cornerback Tracy Porter (neck) and nickel back Patrick Robinson (stomach) are both questionable. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (42 tackles, 1 sack) said how the next man will have to step up if the usual regulars in the defensive backfield are unable to go. Porter (20 tackles) was injured against the Bucs and could be replaced by Leigh Torrence (16 tackles). Rookie Johnny Patrick is the leading candidate to replace Robinson when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams goes with five defensive backs. Robinson leads the team with two interceptions. The Falcons have a lot of speed in White and Jones, and Gonzalez can be a killer in the middle. Linebackers Jo- Lonn Dunbar (43 tackles) and Scott Shanle (39 tackles) must keep Gonzalez in their sights. Safety Roman Harper (56 tackles) and defensive end Will Smith (19 tackles) lead the team with six and five sacks, respectively.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How will Atlanta's 19th-rated pass defense fare against arguably the best aerial assault in the NFL? The Falcons' coverage will dictate the outcome of Sunday's game, while pressure up front by defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards can make a difference.
Sproles will have a tough time running against Atlanta's trio of linebackers that lead the team in tackles and are highly athletic. If Graham can throw a few linebackers off guard, Sproles will be able to pounce for positive yardage.
Ryan has been impressive in the Georgia Dome throughout his young career and the Falcons are 18-0 when their quarterback has a rating of 100 or better. He is 6-0 in six November starts with a 104.7 rating to show for it. Ryan posted three touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Saints a season ago, and is 22-3 at the Georgia Dome in his career.
Even though the Saints have won four of six meetings with Atlanta since the 2008 campaign, the Falcons have been more consistent as of late and want to continue their rise on Sunday. Last year's top-seeded team in the NFC, the Falcons are getting what they want from Ryan at an opportune time, and the recent breakout of Jones can only make "Matty Ice" better. Brees and company are no slouches, but will bring out the best in an Atlanta defense that will control the tempo from the get-go.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Saints 20
11/10 16:30:05 ET