Atlanta at New Orleans: The Season Hangs in the Balance
The writing is clearly on the wall for the Atlanta Falcons when they travel to New Orleans this weekend.
Win and they still have a chance at the playoffs. Lose and their hopes are all but over.
A loss could also spell the end for head coach Mike Smith and his staff.
Maybe the greatest part of this contest will be the receiving corps for both teams as Matt Ryan and Drew Brees figure to have plenty of passing opportunities. The thought of a shootout is exciting, but it also means the defenses are failing to stop any scoring.
Here are some keys to the contest on Sunday, according to the Falcons website.
The Atlanta Falcons travel to New Orleans for a Week 16 divisional show down that could determine the winner of the NFC South at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. The Falcons and Saints have met 90 times in their history with Atlanta holding a 47-43 advantage in the all-time series, including a 37-34 overtime win at the Georgia Dome in Week 1.
Top Matchup: Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs Saints secondary
Sunday's must-win game for the Falcons is the next chance for Ryan to show why he's nicknamed "Matty Ice." In the Week 1 matchup, Ryan finished with 448 passing yards and three touchdowns, including a 128.8 rating. He'll need a similar performance in Week 16 against the playmaking Saints secondary.
"Last week, (they) created turnovers that helped them win that football game (against Chicago on Monday night)," Ryan said. "They’re tough. We know that going into it, and they’re physical. They play with great passion. In these kind of division games, that always shows up.”
Under the Radar Player: Falcons WR Harry Douglas
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (hip) is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Atlanta's receivers are expecting a strong performance, with or without Jones, including Douglas, who loves playing in New Orleans.
"You have to believe you're the best," Douglas said. "You have to believe that you're going to go out there and play like you're the best, individually as an offense, as a group, as one unit and as a team. Their dome is my favorite dome to play in, besides the Georgia Dome. I just love the crowd and the atmosphere. I love when the crowd gets quiet. You always want to play in atmospheres like that."
On the Radar Player: Falcons CB Desmond Trufant
Trufant's NFL career began in New Orleans, facing the Saints during Week 1 in 2013. The team's star cornerback returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, leading his team in pass breakups (14). Saints head coach Sean Payton made it very clear this week that Trufant is on his team's radar.
"That's one player I have a circle around," Payton said. "His growth in just two years now, really, you see him going up against the opposing team's best receiver, so he's not just lined up on the right side or the left side. He's got very good transition, very good feet, and he's also smart. You can definitely see the improvement in his play and his production. He's a very good tackler."
Number of the Game: 1.1
The high-octane offenses of New Orleans and Atlanta average nearly the same amount of points, separated by just 1.1. The Saints average 26 points per game (ninth best in the NFL), while the Falcons are ranked 10th in the league, averaging 24.9 points per contest. Sunday's game is expected to be a shootout, but either way, Falcons fans are hoping it ends the same way it did to start this season, a 37-34 victory.
Three Keys to Victory:
1. What's Your Motivation?: Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis made headlines this week, predicting a funeral for the Falcons. The Falcons players, however, haven't taken the bait, instead remaining focused on preparing for their best team effort yet against their bitter rival. "I don't read that stuff," Falcons running back Steven Jackson said about Lewis' comment. "I don't look for it. The thing about football is that it takes 53 guys collectively doing a good job, not just one."
2. It's a Rhythm Thing: Falcons cornerback Robert McClain intercepted Drew Brees in Week 1, leading to an eventual victory. The Saints are 1-6 this season when they lose the turnover battle. Along with forcing turnovers, McClain emphasized other keys to success in Week 16: "If we can control their tempo and slow them down by getting stops on crucial downs and getting three-and-outs, that will help us out a lot," McClain said. "We have some things ready for them. They've developed into a better team than when we played them in the first week of the season. We have some things that will help us pressure their quarterback and some things that will help us make plays against them in the secondary."
3. Green Zone Efficiency: "We have to score touchdowns in the green zone," Douglas said. "The red zone means stop, and we're going to keep pushing forward. It's very big when you're going against Drew Brees and the offense that they have. That's what we're focused on, getting touchdowns and not settling for field goals."