Move over previous Thursday Night Football games, this week's TNF matchup is officially the tastiest we've had this season.
The 9-3 New Orleans Saints take on the 7-5 Atlanta Falcons in a critical NFC South battle. New Orleans has a chance to take firm control of the division with a win. The Falcons need a W to stay in the wild-card hunt. Both teams have big-name superstars, and both have the firepower to make some highlights in the kickoff to Week 14.
Here are five things we're watching for when the two square off at 8:25 p.m. ET on NFL Network, NBC and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
- The Alvin Kamara show. The Saints' third-round draft pick went from a neat gadget back, to the prohibitive Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite, to a legitimate NFL superstar all in the span of 13 games this season. The tailback out of Tennessee is coming off arguably his most impressive performance of the year, keying the Saints in a crucial 31-21 win over the Carolina Panthers. On just 14 touches (nine carries and five catches), Kamara logged 126 total yards and two touchdowns. The halfback, per NFL research, is just the third rookie ever with 600-plus rushing yards and 600-plus receiving yards. The last time he didn't score a touchdown for New Orleans was Week 7 -- in mid-October. Can the Atlanta Falcons slow him down? Or will this week be more of the same for one of the league's most surprising players?
- Will the real Julio Jones please stand up? The Atlanta Falcons' star receiver recorded one of the best games in NFL history for a wideout in Week 12, torching Tampa Bay for 253 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches. He even added 15 rushing yards on one attempt. Yet Jones followed that up with a clunker against the Minnesota Vikings last weekend, posting just 24 yards on two catches. It's been a familiar story for Jones this season, who's now had seven games this year with less than 75 receiving yards. For a player as talented as Jones, that shouldn't happen. The Saints have been good against the pass this season, giving up just 217.2 passing yards per game. But rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who's been stellar for New Orleans this season, could be unavailable after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Can Falcons OC Steve Sarkisian take advantage and get his big wideout consistently involved?
- The Atlanta Falcons didn't pick the best week to be down a key starter on the offensive line. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cameron Jordan is quietly putting together a career year, already logging 10 sacks this season. With guard Andy Levitre ruled out because of a biceps injury, Jordan's matchup against the Falcons' O-line will be one to watch. Atlanta has been tremendous this season at keeping Matt Ryan upright, allowing just 16 sacks (tied for fourth least in the league). Jordan, meanwhile, has wrecked several games by living in backfields. Who wins that battle in the trenches could be a big determining factor in Thursday's outcome.
- The Falcons were without both Desmond Trufant (concussion) and Brian Poole (back) in their secondary against the Vikings last week and, consequently, forced just five Case Keenum incompletions on 30 throws. Coach Dan Quinn announced Trufant will be back Thursday night, and with Poole listed as a limited participant Monday, there appears to be a chance he could be back as well. That's good timing for the Falcons. Drew Brees has had a weird year, only throwing for over 300 yards three times this season and missing throws downfield he usually makes. But he's still Drew Brees (just ask the Washington Redskins in Week 11). If the Falcons are somehow able to contain Kamara and Mark Ingram on the ground, having a healthy Trufant and Poole in the secondary will be nice for Atlanta when the Brees onslaught comes.
- Atlanta has a new, fancy home in Mercedez-Benz Stadium, but crowd noise, or lack thereof, has been a problem for the Falcons, who are just 3-3 in their new building this season. Coach Dan Quinn told reporters Tuesday he hopes that changes against the rival Saints: "I used the analogy today, 'We built a billion dollar house and we need to throw a billion dollar party, house-warmer. I think sometimes, we're still using the coasters and we need to be as loud and fun as all we represent as a city. I wouldn't say I'm disappointed. I think there was looking at the new house and checking it out. So let's hope this weekend, this Thursday night, is the one that turns it, from a crowd-standpoint, that we know. It's an important part. It's an advantage. Home-field advantage is real. We're calling that as a whole team to get that even stronger, louder that we know it can be."