The New Orleans Saints need a win to reasonably say that they remain in the NFC playoff picture. The Atlanta Falcons just need their luck to continue in order to claim the conference's number one seed in the postseason. While New Orleans (5-6) had a back-breaking off-season leading to an 0-4 start, Atlanta (10-1) has had everything go their way. Tonight they meet at the Georgia Dome with the Saints in dire need of a victory and the Falcons looking to avenge their only loss of the year.
Leading up to the 2012 season New Orleans dealt with a contract squabble involving QB Drew Brees and suspensions, appeals, and the loss of coach Sean Payton for the year because of involvement in a bounty scandal. Despite having the worst defense in the NFL by a wide margin, the Saints have won three of four and sit just one game behind the undaunting trio of Seattle, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay for the final NFC playoff berth. New Orleans missed an opportunity on Sunday.
On a day that the Seahawks, Vikings, and Bucs all lost, the Saints hosted San Francisco Sunday with a chance to get even in the race for the final playoff spot. The normally shaky New Orleans defense allowed only 375 yards and 17 points. Those numbers are more than 75 yards and 10 points fewer than their average for the season. However, Brees was twice intercepted and had both passes returned for touchdowns in the 49ers 31-21 victory. The Falcons have had neither the adversity nor the schedule New Orleans has.
While the Saints have played four division leaders thus far, Atlanta has faced only one team that would qualify for the postseason if the playoffs began now. Despite a rushing attack ranked 28th in the league, the Falcons have lost just once thanks to a dynamic passing game and lady luck continuing to help out Atlanta. The Falcons have benefited from a Peyton Manning three interception quarter, an Arizona passing attack that totaled less than 50 yards, a critical Cam Newton fumble in a game Carolina appeared to have salted away, and Robert Griffin III getting injured in a close win over Washington.
What both teams can do is pass. Brees and Matt Ryan combined for more than 700 yards through the air when New Orleans beat Atlanta 31-27 November 11. The two quarterbacks rank in the top eight in the NFL in QB Rating, passing yards, and touchdowns thrown. As for the defenses, Atlanta allows 7.4 yards per pass attempt ranking them number 21 in the NFL. The Saints are worst in the league yielding 8.5 yards per try.
In the first meeting, New Orleans TE Jimmy Graham caught seven passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. It would have been for naught had Saints CB Jabari Greer not lunged in front of a Ryan pass intended for Roddy White that would have gone for a touchdown on fourth down late in the final quarter. Falcon coach Mike Smith has had a fortunate season but little luck against New Orleans. The Saints are 7-2 all-time against Smith and will need to make it 8-2 to keep the playoff drive alive.