It's not often that a regular-season game creates the atmosphere of a playoff contest, but the Thursday night battle between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network) has the potential to turn into an epic affair.
The Falcons (10-1) can essentially sew up the NFC South with a win over their bitter rivals, while the Saints (5-6) can revive their playoff hopes with an upset on the road. Not to mention the fact that New Orleans handed Atlanta its first (and only) loss back in Week 10.
Given the high stakes, here are three keys to the game:
Can the Falcons finish drives against the Saints?
The Falcons field one of the NFL's most explosive offenses, but the unit has been bogged down in the red zone in recent weeks. The Falcons have scored touchdowns on just 50 percent of their red-zone attempts over the past three games; this inability to score sevens has allowed overmatched opponents to stay alive. The Falcons' red-zone woes played a critical role in the loss to the Saints in Week 10, with Atlanta settling for field goals on two of its six red-zone possessions. Most importantly, the Saints won the game with an inspired goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter.
Given the high-powered nature of the Saints' offense, the Falcons must find a way to put the ball in the paint on Thursday night. Expect Matt Ryan to target Tony Gonzalez on a few stick routes or end-line square-ins, to capitalize on his size advantage over New Orleans' defensive backs. In addition, look for Jacquizz Rodgers to get a few attempts on screens and draws, to utilize his elusiveness in space. If the Falcons can avoid settling for field goals inside the 20-yard line, they certainly have enough firepower to win a shootout with the Saints.
Will the Saints get back to grindin' against the Falcons?
One of the changes Saints interim coach Joe Vitt instituted when he returned from his six-game suspension was a renewed commitment to the run. He openly discussed the Saints' misuse of their running backs, and prodded the offensive coaches to utilize a more balanced game plan. Against the Falcons in Week 10, the grind-it-out approach produced glowing results, as Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for 148 rushing yards on 29 attempts. In looking at the Coaches Film of that contest, I saw that it was the combination of hard-nosed power runs by Ingram and explosive off-tackle bursts from Ivory that eventually wore down the Falcons in the second half. The utilization of a balanced attack also alleviated the pressure on Drew Brees in the pocket, creating big-play opportunities off play-action.
Given the Falcons' problems defending the run in the first contest, I would expect the Saints to feature a balanced game plan, with Ivory, Thomas, Ingram and Darren Sproles taking turns attacking Atlanta's defense on a variety of running plays. If the Saints can surpass 130 yards on the ground on 20-plus attempts, they should be able to control the tempo of the game and create several big-play chances for Brees.
Can Atlanta's secondary contain Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles?
The Saints create serious problems for opponents with the depth and talent of their receiving corps. While it is impossible to shut down all of the weapons at Brees' disposal, the teams that have been able to contain New Orleans have focused on stopping the Saints' top three threats: Graham, Colston and Sproles. This trio has accounted for 56.5 percent of Brees' completions and 20 of his 31 passing touchdowns. Those numbers are pretty astonishing on the surface; they're even more impressive when one considers that Graham and Sproles have been limited by injuries. Therefore, the Falcons' primary objective should be to slow down at least two of the Saints' primary playmakers.
The Falcons must make Brees rely on the complementary players (Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Pierre Thomas) to key the offense. To accomplish this, the Falcons will likely switch up their coverage to feature various brackets and double-teams on Graham, Colston and Sproles. Also, the Falcons will vary which guys are doubled, forcing Brees to find the receiver facing single coverage on the fly. If the Falcons can alter Brees' timing and rhythm, they can force the Pro Bowler to settle for check-downs and eliminate the explosive plays that spark New Orleans' offense.
The postseason implications of this game will create a must-win atmosphere for the Saints. They will bring playoff-like intensity and effort to the Georgia Dome, and that focus could spark their best performance of the season. While I believe the Falcons are capable of matching that energy, I think the Saints have rediscovered their mojo, and are on the way to making a serious playoff push. This will be a close one.
Saints 31, Falcons 28
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.