(SportsNetwork.com) - What many figured would be the key game in the NFC South
this season has morphed into a potential mismatch.
The New Orleans Saints have found their way again with Sean Payton back on the
sidelines after a one-year suspension, while the Atlanta Falcons, who finished
13-3 in 2012 and perhaps one play away from a Super Bowl berth, have endured a
miserable season thanks in large part to injuries.
Payton has pushed all the right buttons after spending a year away from the
game as punishment for the bounty scandal in New Orleans, most notably hiring
defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has turned around a historically awful
group from the Saints' 7-9 2012 campaign.
Last week Payton lit a fire under his slumping kicker Garrett Hartley by
bringing in a few potential replacements to look at and the veteran responded
Sunday by connecting on three fourth-quarter field goals, including the game-
winner in a 23-20 come-from-behind win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Hartley, who had missed four of his previous six attempts, drilled a 31-yard
kick as time expired to lift the Saints.
"I love the way he responded ... I'm proud of him," Payton said.
The NFC South-leading Saints (8-2), who are one game ahead of Carolina for the
NFC South lead and 1 1/2 games south of Seattle for the top spot in the
conference, also benefited from a controversial personal foul penalty on San
Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Drew Brees passed for 305 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the
win, while his counterpart, Colin Kaepernick, was limited to 127 yards through
the air while the Niners as a whole amassed just 196 total yards.
Despite Kaepernick's troubles a road victory was within reach for San
Francisco when Brooks sent Brees to the turf with a punishing hit late in the
fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that fellow linebacker Patrick Willis
Brooks, though, was flagged for his high tackle, and the extended possession
resulted in Hartley's game-tying 42-yard field goal with 2:06 on the clock.
"I felt like I hit him with my chest, like I bear-hugged him ... kind of
hard," Brooks said.
The officials were put to the test again when Kaepernick threw the ball away
near his own goal line on the ensuing drive. The quarterback was ruled outside
the tackles, but even though the call went the 49ers' way, they had to punt
with just under two minutes remaining.
Fair-catch interference put the ball on the Saints' own 40-yard line, and
Brees quickly completed 3-of-4 passes for a total 41 yards to move into field-
"These are the (games) that just sharpen you, build confidence moving
forward," said Brees.
The Falcons, meanwhile, may have hit a new low last Sunday in Tampa, getting
trounced by the lowly Buccaneers, 41-28.
Matt Ryan was 19-for-36 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions
for Atlanta (2-8), which has lost four straight since a 31-23 win over Tampa
Bay on Oct. 20, the team's longest slide since a six-game hiccup in 2007 - the
season before coach Mike Smith arrived.
Antone Smith had two carries for 88 yards and a touchdown, while Harry Douglas
caught six passes for 134 yards and a score in defeat.
"It's just a tough loss. We didn't play nearly as well as we needed to, to be
competitive," said Ryan. "I thought guys fought and played until the end,
which you like to see that, but at the same time very disappointing."
This week's contest marks the 89th meeting between the two division rivals
with Atlanta holding a slim 46-42 edge in the all-time series. The Saints,
however, have won 12 of the last 15.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
When you think about the Saints, you usually start with the offense and Brees
and Co. have certainly done their part, amassing 419.1 yards per game, good
for second in the NFL, as well as 28.8 points per game.
Brees himself is connecting on 68.2 percent of his passes and is second to
Denver's Peyton Manning with 3,369 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes. His
success is nothing new, however, and a little bump was expected with the
return of Payton, who is one of the best two or three play-callers in the
New Orleans won the last game between the two clubs, rallying from a 10-0 hole
to earn a 23-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the season opener
for both clubs. Brees threw for 357 yards and two TDs in that one.
Last year at the Georgia Dome, however, Brees had one of his worst games as a
pro, throwing five interceptions and failing to find the end zone in a 23-13
setback. Since that performance, Brees has tossed 38 touchdown passes in just
On of Brees' favorite targets, receiver Marques Colston, became New Orleans'
all-time leader in receiving yards with 7,923 after piling up 80 on five
catches against the 49ers. Colston also traditionally plays well against the
Falcons, recording three touchdowns in his last four games against Atlanta.
The Falcons defense, meanwhile, has been one of the worst in the NFL in 2013,
allowing 29.2 points per game. Things have only been getting worse recently
and the future job prospects of both Smith and general manager Thomas
Dimitroff have been called into question.
"It's a tough business. We've had a lot of injuries, and issues on top
of the injuries," team owner Arthur Blank said. "These guys are proven leaders
and proven by success. They'll do the work that has to be done with my full
The main problem on that side of the ball has been injuries to difference
makers like Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann and the reliance on young,
"Anytime that you've got a number of young guys playing, and we have a number
of young guys who have had a lot of snaps, you've got to be impressed with
some of their performances," Smith said. "(Linebacker Paul) Worrilow has done
an outstanding job. That is three games that he has come out and played
extremely well. Our corners have gotten lots of play, our defensive line;
we've had young guys playing on the defensive line.
"Those are the positives for the future, but when you talk about the future,
the future in the NFL is the next game. This game on Thursday is really about
as far as you can look as a coach."
Looking at the Saints' is paramount but you can no longer sleep on the D
either. In fact the real substantial improvement for NOLA this season has been
on Rob Ryan's side of the ball. Ryan took over a unit which allowed a
disastrous 440.1 ypg and 28.4 points per contest in 2012 and completely turned
it around with a philosophy change.
Instead of sticking with a 4-3 zone-based scheme that wasn't working, Ryan
switched to his patented 3-4 attacking mentality and the results have been
substantial. The Saints rank fourth in the NFL, giving up just 305.4 ypg and
fifth with 18.3 points allowed per contest.
The team did suffer a significant loss against the 49ers, though, when
cornerback Jabari Greer went down with an ACL tear in his left knee.
When the snowball starts rolling down the wrong side of the hill in the NFL,
it's difficult to stop and that's what is going on in Atlanta. A 13-win team
from a year ago is now in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the
draft and that's not changing any time soon.
New Orleans, which is 6-0 at the Superdome, is generally not the same kind of
team on the road but this is a golden opportunity to continue pressing Seattle
for the top spot in the NFC. The Georgia Dome is a fast track and the Falcons
are just not competitive right now.
"Clearly, we're 10 games into this thing and certainly far, far away from
where we want to be," Matt Ryan said. "We've got six games to go. It's about
going out there and taking pride in what you do."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Falcons 18
The Sports Network