Perhaps the most highly-anticipated game of Week 3 will take place at Mercedez-Benz Stadium, the home of Super Bowl LIII. A couple of NFC South rivals will clash when the New Orleans Saints hit the road to take on the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.
Both teams are off to 1-1 starts, though they’ve taken starkly different routes to get there. The Saints were humiliated on their home field in Week 1 in a humbling 48-40 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before fighting back to avoid what would’ve been a disastrous loss to the hapless Cleveland Browns last week. It wasn’t pretty, but the Saints eked out a victory.
As for the Falcons, they nearly came away with a Week 1 upset in Philadelphia, but ultimately fell short. Last week Atlanta rebounded with a statement win over the Carolina Panthers at home in a game in which Carolina never really stood a chance. The Falcons and Saints are tied with the Panthers for second place in the division behind the surprising 2-0 Bucs.
The Falcons have put forth a couple of different performances thus far. The offense looked terrible against the Eagles in the first game before finding their footing a bit in the second half. Against the Panthers, the ATL offense was humming from the jump and looked much more like the dynamic unit we saw nearly win the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. I think the real Falcons are much more like the team we saw last week than the team we saw in Philly.
The Falcons have been about middle-of-the-pack when it comes to the aerial attack, but they have been surprisingly excellent with the ground game. The Falcons currently rank eighth in rushing yards, fifth in yards per attempt and fourth in rushing touchdowns. Atlanta also has a positive turnover differential early in the season.
The Saints had very little issue slicing through the Tampa Bay defense despite the loss two weeks ago, but they struggled to find much consistent momentum last week against what appears to be a pretty stout Browns D. While the Falcons have done more damage on the ground, the Saints have been more impressive in the passing game. New Orleans currently ranks fourth in passing yards, sixth in yards per attempt and sixth in passing touchdowns. That Drew Brees guy is pretty good back there. The Saints are actually dead last in the league in rushing yards per game, but we can expect that to correct itself moving forward, especially after Mark Ingram returns from his 4-game suspension. The blocking has been suspect, however. New Orleans also has a turnover differential of -3, which helps tell us why they’ve struggled so far.
The Falcons have already suffered a couple of devastating blows after having lost Pro Bowl defenders Keanu Neal and Delon Jones to season-ending injuries. The Atlanta defense has managed to hold its own despite the big losses, but the Saints obviously present the toughest offensive challenge they will have faced thus far. The Falcons have been particularly poor in terms of stopping teams on third down, as opposing offenses have converted 48 percent of the time already. We need to take these early-season numbers with a grain of salt considering we only have a two-week sample, but they’re still trends to note.
The Saints’ defense hasn’t at all lived up to billing after emerging as the most-improved unit in the league last season. They’re allowing 33 points per game through two weeks, which is suboptimal.
As of this writing, this game checks in with an implied total of 54 points, which is among the highest of the Sunday slate. Considering both of these teams have indoor stadiums, their head-to-head clashes tend to be shootouts. However, their two meetings last season were fairly low scoring given the expectations. The Saints were beaten 20-17 in their lone trip to Atlanta in December before rebounding with a 23-13 win in The Big Easy a few weeks later. With the Falcons down a few key defensive players and the Saints struggling to stop anybody, I have a feeling we will finally get our highly-anticipated high-scoring affair in Atlanta this Sunday.
The Saints’ offense to this point has essentially consisted of Brees finding Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. The two have already combined to haul in a combined 43 passes from Brees on a whopping 48 targets. No other Saints receiver has more than Ted Ginn’s 9 catches on 13 targets this season. 28 of those receptions belong to Thomas (an NFL record), while they have combined to score 6 total touchdowns.
The Falcons are one of the better teams in the league in terms of being able to generate a consistent pass rush, so this will certainly be a test for Brees, who has completed 81 percent of his throws early on. Expect Brees to spread the wealth more this week with Thomas and Kamara being focal points for the ATL defense. I’d expect Austin Carr and Tre’Quan Smith to be more involved in the passing attack.
Devonta Freeman also missed last week’s game for the Falcons, but Tevin Coleman is one of the better backups in the league, so the running game remained steady. Ryan has the ability to pick apart a defense if the opposing defense is unable to generate consistent pressure, so it will be crucial for the New Orleans defense to show up and take an aggressive approach early in the game to set a tone. Letting Ryan get comfortable back there has disastrous potential for the Saints.
It’s hard to imagine a blowout either way in this one. I feel like the Saints and Falcons are fairly evenly matched on both sides of the ball, so this one should go down to the wire. I do expect a better all-around effort from New Orleans given the rivalry nature of this one, while the Falcons certainly won’t take it lightly considering they’re at home here. A close, hotly-contested game should pretty much always be the expectation when these teams get together.
So, I think the over on 54 combined points is the play with this one. We know the Saints won’t stop throwing the football regardless of the score, which should result in no shortage of possessions for either team. Hit the over on 54.
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