The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have the second-best rivalry in the NFL, and it could pass Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers before long. The games always matter between the Saints and Falcons, and there is a long-running genuine dislike between fans and players in the rivalry.
Most importantly, the games are uniformly entertaining. Four of the last six meetings were decided by a field goal or less, with two going to overtime. The first meeting this year was a four-point margin, with the Saints needing to pull off a goal-line stand in the final two minutes to secure the 31-27 win.
These games often define a regular season, like Atlanta's failed fourth-and-short attempt last year. The Falcons could nearly end the Saints' playoff hopes with a win Thursday night. If New Orleans prevails, Atlanta's 10-2 record will look hollow because it got swept by a division opponent.
The two teams played just three weeks ago, but we've been grinding away watching Game Rewind for the games in between and noticed a few new trends from each team.
Ryan's turnover problem
The five interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals were hard to ignore, although just two clearly were Matt Ryan's fault. Last week's two turnovers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were overlooked because Ryan played very well in the game otherwise. Ryan never saw Ronde Barber on one interception. Ryan admitted fault not accounting for an extra blitzer on a fourth-quarter fumble. The interception directly led to seven points for the Buccaneers. Ryan occasionally can force things when under pressure, and the Saints have applied more pressure lately. Ryan is third in the NFL in interceptions.
Improving Saints defense
We said improving, not great. But New Orleans' defense appears to be catching on to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's game plans. He is sending more complex pressures and varying his looks more than in the first month. The Saints actually got a lot of pressure on Ryan in the first matchup, and they did a nice job getting after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last week. They just couldn't finish the play.
Second-year pro Cameron Jordan is a great run defender and had a nice game rushing the passer against the 49ers. Safety Malcom Jenkins and cornerback Patrick Robinson have both played better since the team bottomed out at 0-4.
Jacquizz Rodgers is playing more than Michael Turner
Atlanta's coaching staff has started listening to all those fans who wanted to see more of Rodgers and less of Turner. Rodgers has played more snaps than Turner in back-to-back games. He's often in on the goal line. With the game on the line last week, Rodgers started Atlanta's drive. It's not hard to see why.
Rodgers can go outside the numbers and can carry defenders on his back. He can make defenders miss, which Turner never does. Penetration is a problem for Atlanta's offensive line, but Rodgers is more likely to create something out of nothing. And the kid loves to block.
Short-yardage woes continue
After famously struggling in short-yardage situations all last season and this season against the Saints, the Falcons have made just modest strides since. They had a few short-yardage touchdowns against the Cardinals and Bucs, but they also were stuffed many more times. They were 4 of 9 with 2 yards or less to gain over the last two weeks, with a fumble. Running to the edges has proven more effective.
Beware, Matt Bryant
The Falcons' kicker usually is very reliable, but he missed a 22-yard field-goal attempt and a 48-yard try last week.