It is absolutely crunch time for the Atlanta Falcons. Losses on the road against the Cleveland Browns and then at home against the Dallas Cowboys have left them clinging to the smallest thread of playoff hopes. They can thank the mediocrity of the rest of the mid level of the NFC for still having a chance. It tells you everything that if the Falcons had won these last two games they would currently be the 5th seed at 6-4. However, instead they head to New Orleans desperately needing an unlikely win. A lot of that pressure is going to fall on the offense. No one is expecting anything from the defense and honestly keeping the Saints under 40 points might be a success. Therefore, this offense needs to be efficient and show us some of the really good flashes we have seen this season.
It is no secret Ryan has trouble on the road. According to PFF his grade is 30 points lower on the road this season than at home. However, he has managed to have success in New Orleans in recent times. In his last four matchups in the dome he averaged 286.25 yards, 1.5 touchdowns and has thrown just one interception. The problem is he is going to need to be even better this week.
In Week 11 the Eagles had a chance offensive down 17-7 but a bad play call led to a sack of Carson Wentz. Then in the blink of an eye the Saints were out of sight. That is the issue facing Ryan and the Falcons this week. They cannot afford for more than a couple of drives to end in punts or field goals, they need touchdowns. Earlier this season when these two teams met Ryan managed to throw for five touchdowns in that loss so he can do it. Being indoors will help but it will certainly not be easy.
The reverse fixture this season was the Calvin Ridley coming out party. Ridley had 146 receiving yards and three touchdowns on seven receptions. That kind of efficiency will be hard to match but the Saints have had problems against secondary wide receivers this season. Ridley will need to be the dynamic playmaker the Falcons were looking for when they drafted him for the team to have a real shot down. Ridley has been dealing with a thigh injury but right now he is expected to play. If he cannot go then the Falcons might be in trouble before they even start.
To say Julio Jones is key would be an understatement. The big receiver has seven 100-yard games this season and has scored touchdowns in each of the last three games. Jones averaged 16 yards per target the last time these two faced off and the Falcons will need him to be able to make big plays and draw a large proportion of the coverage so their other two receivers can work.
Mohamed Sanu has quietly gone about his work this season, with three touchdowns and 472 yards. He has not been spectacular but he has been solid and that is exactly what the Falcons need this week. There is a chance the run game might struggle so Sanu will need to provide quick hit offense to move the chains.
The Running Game
I am not expecting much from Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith in this game. The Saints have a top five defense when it comes to defending the run. The only thing they have given up is touchdowns to backs. They have allowed 10 touchdowns to opposing running backs which ranks among the worst in the league.
The Falcons are likely going to need to move the ball through the air against this defense. However, they will need to use the run game for a number of reasons. Firstly, it will be tough to go into New Orleans and go head to head with this offense. Therefore, the run game can chew the clock and try to give the Saints defense time to rest and adjust to the plans of the Saints. It is unlikely to help much but it will help a little and that is what matters.
Secondly they need to to use the run to set up the play action for their guys down field. Finally, they need the run in the red zone to punch the ball in. Touchdowns will be key and the Falcons cannot afford to stall in the red zone. That is where havng a balanced short yardage attack will be key.
The Final Word
This game will not be easy and the Falcons need to score 40 points to have a shot. However, it does not get bigger than this. Lose and the season is as good as done. Meanwhile the Falcons players would be watching the Saints continue to steam roll towards the #1 seed and a potential Super Bowl. If they cannot get up in a big way for this you have to question what could motivate them.
The other aspect is you are going into your biggest rivals house on Thanksgiving with the eyes of millions focused solely on you. If they win this game then it is one they will remember for a long time, especially if it ultimately cost the Saints the #1 seed. The one thing they will not want is to be simply another speed bump on the Saints road to the dream season.
I am not sure the Falcons can win but I am almost certain this offense will not go down quietly until the clock hits 0:00. I expect this game to be extremely close and fairly high scoring. It should be a fun end to a day with the family.