The Atlanta Falcons (10-1) play host to their division rivals the New Orleans Saints (5-6) in a prime time Thursday Night Football rematch. The Falcons are looking to get even with the Saints, who beat them in New Orleans in Week 10 and ended their bid at an undefeated season.
The Saints, winners of five of their last seven, are fighting for a Wild Card spot in the NFC. They trail the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by just one game. A win in Atlanta puts them right back in the hunt for a playoff berth. A loss all but mathematically dashes their hopes of another Super Bowl run.
The Falcons have nearly locked up the NFC South with a 10-1 record. They lead the Buccaneers by four games with just five left to play. They also lead the 49ers and Bears in the conference standings by two games in the hunt for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Drew Brees got the best of Matt Ryan in his house, now Ryan gets his turn at being the host at this Thursday-night dinner party as division rivals clash in the Georgia Dome with major playoff implications on the line.
Three Match-ups to watch:
Matt Ryan vs. Curtis Lofton
Traditionally, Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton isn’t the one racking up sacks on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Don’t expect this game to be any different, either. Other than the possible sack on a linebacker blitz, Lofton matches up with Ryan in a very different way; the audible.
At the line of scrimmage, the quarterback’s job is to read the defensive alignment and audible accordingly. On the other side of the ball, it is the middle linebacker’s job to read the offensive alignment and audible accordingly. This cat-and-mouse game will be played to a much higher level on Thursday night because these two teams are so familiar with each other. Don’t expect the game plans to be much different for either team because the week 10 game in New Orleans was so close. Other than some minor adjustments, these two teams will likely treat this game as if it is four quarters of overtime.
A good audible can result in a touchdown; a bad audible can result in being sacked or tackled for a loss. Keep an eye on the back-and-forth audibles between Ryan and Lofton as these two stars try to give their teams an advantage.
William Moore/Thomas DeCoud vs. Jimmy Graham
In Week 10, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham “went ham” on the Falcons for 146 yards on seven receptions with a pair of touchdowns. To state the obvious, Graham cannot be covered by a single linebacker. He requires the help of a safety on nearly every play, especially inside the red zone. Even then, as we saw in New Orleans, the Falcons’ double team still resulted in a Graham touchdown.
Limiting Graham will limit the Saints offense tremendously, as Graham is Brees’ favorite target, as well as his most reliable. In the red zone, expect the Falcons to blitz a little more and double-team Graham with either DeCoud or Moore. The other safety will likely be coming on the blitz. Graham is often times Brees’ hot read when under pressure, and a seductive blitz-double team is likely to cause a turnover via interception.
Joe Vitt vs. Mike Smith
Much like the Lofton-Ryan matchup, head coaching matchups are always more intriguing when division rivals meet. As we saw last season at the Georgia Dome, Falcons head coach Mike Smith decided not to punt. Instead he went for it on fourth-and-inches deep inside his own territory in overtime. They were unable to convert, and Saints kicker John Kasay won the game with a 26-yard field goal.
When teams know each other as well as the Saints and Falcons do, it usually comes down to one play, one drive, or one coaching decision. Going for it on fourth down, faking a punt or a field goal, managing timeouts and challenges are all part of what head coaches are responsible for during the course of a game.
Take the Baltimore-Dallas game for example. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett probably cost his team the game by mismanaging the clock late in the fourth quarter. Instead of having an extra timeout and running one more play to get into more makeable range, they were forced to settle for a long-range attempt, which sailed wide right, costing Dallas a win and adding to Garrett questionable decision-making skills.
Decisions like this haunt coaches, and in a heated division game, it can be the difference in winning and losing. Earning victories has just as much to do with coaching decisions as it does with player execution. Yes, sometimes you have to take risks. However, careless mistakes will beat you nine times out of 10 in the NFL. Smith has to be at his best in order to beat the Saints on Thursday night.