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'Thursday Night Football' preview: 5 things to watch

This one should have been a doozy.

CHARGERS AT BRONCOS
Thursday, Dec. 12, 8 p.m. ET
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The Atlanta Falcons hosting the New Orleans Saints in a late November tussle with major playoff implications. Right?

That's likely what NFL Network was thinking when it landed this precious gem on the prime-time slate, but the football gods have not been kind to one of these two teams.

No squad walked into the season with greater expectations than Atlanta, who came within a play of the Super Bowl last season and arguably entered 2013 with even more talent on the roster. Instead of glory, the injury bug attacked with a vengeance, ripping wide receivers Julio Jones and -- back, when it mattered -- Roddy White from an offense built around the pass.

Flailing around at 2-8, the Falcons appear less capable by the week.

The Saints (8-2) are a different story, rebounding from last season's bounty-stained campaign to take control of a division they last won two seasons ago. For coach Sean Payton and his men, tonight's matchup has plenty of meaning, as New Orleans needs a win to maintain its shrinking lead over the division's surging Carolina Panthers.

Five more things to watch in Thursday's matchup:

1. The Falcons' sudden tumble from grace includes losses in nine of their last 11 games after a stretch where Atlanta won 32 of its previous 41 contests. The organization isn't out of the woods just yet. As we noted on Wednesday's "Around The League Podcast," the Falcons resemble a squad that's given up on the campaign, floating aimlessly toward a top-three draft pick instead of a late-season surge.

2. Atlanta's problems lie on defense, where the Falcons are giving up 11 more points per game than last season and 30-plus in five of the team's last seven tilts. Atlanta has done a ghastly job of getting to the quarterback, with only the injury-ravaged New England Patriots and struggling Oakland Raiders grading lower on the pass-rushing front, per Pro Football Focus. Atlanta needed to find edge rushers in the offseason but failed to do so. The Falcons' front office also did a poor job mining for secondary help, and it shows. PFF ranks the Atlanta defense above just four other clubs against the pass.

3. That brings us to New Orleans, a team flaming opponents through the air. Drew Brees would be the talk of the league if it weren't for what Peyton Manning has accomplished out west. The Saints' starter is on pace for 5,390 yards this season and is showing a renewed knack for explosive plays with Payton back on the sideline. After posting an 88.0 passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards through the air last season, Brees has netted a 110.0 rating on similar throws in 2013.

4. Jimmy Graham could put Atlanta to bed early if the Saints tight end makes the most of this matchup. After failing to net a spot on NFL Network's "The Top 100 Players of 2013," Graham is on pace for 1,353 receiving yards, which would snap the NFL record at his position. Brees also has made good use of wide receiver Robert Meachem, who flamed out with the San Diego Chargers only to return to New Orleans as a serviceable deep threat this season.

5. The Falcons house the active career leader in rushing yards -- Steven Jackson -- but the former St. Louis Rams running back has been a disappointment. SJax has missed four games and accounted for just 192 yards on the ground all season. Brought in to replace Michael Turner and give Atlanta a dynamic presence in the backfield, Jackson hasn't seen more than 13 carries in one game with the Falcons. Toss in one of the NFL's most disappointing offensive lines and a soul-sucking rash of injuries, and quarterback Matt Ryan's ratio of 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions is less of a mystery for this sinking ship.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" previewed "Thursday Night Football" and "stuck a fork" in three unlucky teams.

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