(Sports Network) - Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are halfway home to a
perfect regular season.
Ryan and the Falcons will start the second half of their campaign with an NFC
South matchup in the Big Easy against the New Orleans Saints.
Atlanta is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history after taking care of
business in a 19-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Matt Bryant made
two of his four field goals in the fourth quarter of that one as the Falcons
remained unbeaten and became just the 15th team to start a season with eight
consecutive wins since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
"We are halfway through the season and I think everybody's focus is just to
keep their head down, keep working hard and not worry about anything more than
that," Ryan said. "I think that is one of the reasons we have been successful
in the first half of the season. It's going to be important for us to keep
doing that to try and be successful in the second half."
Ryan completed 24-of-34 passes against the Cowboys for 342 yards and ended
with a passer rating of 102.8 for Atlanta, which improved to an imposing 29-0
when the Boston College product hits the century mark in passer rating (6-0 in
Michael Turner carried the ball 20 times for 102 yards and a touchdown for
Atlanta, while Julio Jones caught five passes for 129 yards and Roddy White
hauled in seven passes for 118 yards.
"Winning in the NFL is a week-to-week proposition," Falcons coach Mike Smith
said. "I like the way our team played in all three phases."
New Orleans will try to ride its own star quarterback, Drew Brees, who is 10-2
against the Falcons since joining the Saints in 2006.
New Orleans may have saved its season on Monday night when Brees threw for
239 yards and a pair of scores as the Saints held off the sputtering
Philadelphia Eagles, 28-13, at the Superdome.
Brees completed 21-of-27 passes and extended his NFL-record streak to 51
straight games with at least one touchdown pass.
"There are defining moments throughout a season," said Brees. "Big plays, big
wins, that kind of bring you together and let you see a vision of what you can
be, what you can accomplish. "This is the type of momentum we want going into
the second half of the season."
Jimmy Graham hauled in eight passes for 72 yards and a score versus the
Eagles, while Chris Ivory led the ground attack with 48 yards and a touchdown
on 10 carries for the Saints, who have won 12 straight games in the month of
The win was also the first under interim head coach Joe Vitt, who was
suspended for the season's first six games for his involvement in the team's
bounty scandal before returning for last Sunday's 34-14 loss to Denver.
"I was proud of our football team to be able to improve on some things we
really worked on and emphasized this week," Vitt said. "Make no mistake we
have a long way to go."
The Falcons lead the all-time series between the two clubs 45-40 but the
Saints have taken 10 of the past 12.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's tough to imagine the Saints' defense, which continues to play with
defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma while they are
appealing their bounty suspensions, slowing down perhaps the most well-rounded
offense in all of football.
Ryan has a ton of weapons at his disposal and can beat you in a number of
ways. White, who has the most receptions in the NFC since 2007 with 518,
Jones, who will be aiming for a third consecutive game with five-plus catches
and 120-plus yards, and Tony Gonzales are all top-tier threats in the passing
game while Turner and scatback Jacquizz Rodgers can both be tough to deal with
in the running game.
"He has an incredible skill set," Ryan said when talking about Jones. "He is
big, strong and powerful. He has great top-end speed. He runs really good
routes. His size is one of things that separate him from other people. There
are some fast guys but rarely are there are guys as big and fast as he is."
Conversely, New Orleans, which relies heavily on ex-Falcon Curtis Lofton at
linebacker, has been historically bad on defense this season, allowing at
least 400 yards of offense in each of its first eight games, the longest such
streak in the NFL since 1950. Overall, the Saints are allowing an average of
471.3 yards per game, over 50 more than the next-worst team and an NFC-worst
176.5 yards per game on the ground.
Opposition quarterbacks are averaging a 105.1 passer rating against the Saints
and when Ryan records a passer rating like that, you might as well pack up the
tent. Vitt can take solace in he fact that Ryan has amassed only a respectable
85.2 rating in his last three starts against NOLA, all losses.
Despite a rocky 0-4 start to the season and a 3-5 mark now Brees' play has
never really waned. He's been exceptional as usual but has lacked a running
game. Things picked up a bit for the Saints in that phase against
Philadelphia. New Orleans entered that game ranked last in the NFL in rushing
with an average of 72.6 yards per game but the trio of Ivory, Pierre Thomas
and Mark Ingram combined for 136 yards in that one.
New Orleans, which will be without the injured Darren Sproles (broken hand)
again, hopes to build on that effort against a Falcons team allowing
127.5 rushing yards per game -- the second-most in the NFC behind the Saints.
Running the football consistently will only opens things up for Brees, who has
a ton of weapons to utilize through the air just like Ryan. Marques Colston,
who has six touchdowns in his last five games, Devery Henderson and Lance
Moore are all big play threats on the outside and Graham can dominate the
"We have a good problem (which) is we have all these backs," Brees said. "You
want to get guys the touches when we can. We're excited to have them all."
Keep an eye on standout linebacker Sean Weatherspoon as well as defensive
tackle Peria Jerry for Atlanta on defense. Weatherspoon, who has a team-high
52 tackles, missed last week's game against Dallas with a sprained right
ankle, and Jerry left in the first half with a knee injury. Both could play on
"I have a lot of respect for (first-year Falcons defensive coordinator) Mike
Nolan," Brees said. "Mike Smith is really a great defensive coach as well.
This seems to be a blend of their philosophies and kind of the best of both.
You definitely can see some new twists to what they're doing. They're playing
The Falcons have to be thinking about ending their season right here in New
Orleans, which will host the Super Bowl. The Saints, meanwhile, are just
hoping to keep their heads above water for another week.
It's pretty obvious New Orleans has to outscore you to win. The Saints are
averaging 31.3 point in their three victories so getting to 30 is almost a
necessary number for Brees and Co.
Atlanta, on the other hand, has been running away from the rest of the NFC
South and a win here could go a long way in the effort toward sealing things.
They Falcons haven't had to face the toughest competition, beating teams with
a combined winning percentage of .369 so far but you can only knock down who
is put in front of you and Atlanta figures to continue doing that in the
"It's a big game," Brees said. "It feels like every time we play the Falcons
it's such a big game, whether it be our standings or the meaning of the game
(or) just the fact that we're divisional opponents (and) we always know it's
going to be a 16-round bout. I think it's kind of obvious that there's an
extreme competitiveness on both sides knowing what type of game this will be."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Saints 24
The Sports Network