Throughout all the ups and downs of the 2023 NFL season, the Falcons' future rests in a game against the New Orleans Saints. However, the Falcons will have to cheer on the Carolina Panthers, as they are set to take on Tampa Bay, who needs to lose for the Falcons to make it into the playoffs. Despite all the turmoil this season has brought, making the playoffs would be a massive ending to an underwhelming season. To reiterate, the Falcons need help getting into the playoffs, and Sunday's game against the Saints only accounts for 50% of their playoff scenario, but if the Falcons lose and the Panthers win, that's still no playoffs for the Dirty Birds. So, either way, this game would fall directly into the "must-win" category. With how the season has played out, it would be an excellent moral victory for the Falcons if they can get a win over their top rival, even if they don't make it into the playoffs. Still, playoffs would be good.
Now, to get into the New Orleans Saints. Atlanta beat New Orleans in their first matchup back in week 12 with a score of 24-15. Atlanta ran all over the Saints' defenses with a total of 228 yards on the ground; Bijan Robinson also scored twice in that matchup. Even though that is the most rushing yards the Saints' defense has given up all year, New Orleans's defense is still very tough. New Orleans currently ranks 6th in points and 13th in yards against. The pass defense is really where the Saints thrive, as they are currently ninth in yards and 11th in touchdowns against. However, defending the run is where the Saints have struggled, as they give up 4.5 yards per attempt, which is 22nd in the league. Paulson Adebo and Tyrann Mathieu have been top playmakers in the Saints' secondary, while Carl Granderson and Demario Davis have been the Saint's top players up front. Going against the Saints' defense will be a challenge; there is no question about it. But, if the Falcons can dominate the ground game like they did in their first matchup, Atlanta could very well come out on top.
The Saints' offense has been pretty consistent, scoring more than 21 points in every game since week 13. Atlanta kept the Saints out of the endzone back in Week 12; the Saint's only points came on five field goals from Blake Grupe. However, Derek Carr did throw for 304 yards on 24 completions and one interception. I'm sure the Saints will be trying to move the ball via the pass, especially since Justin Fields threw for 268 against Atlanta last week. Atlanta will also have to limit Chris Olave, as he had 114 yards on seven catches against the Falcons earlier in the year. Atlanta's defense was embarrassed last week; they will have another challenge trying to stop the Saints' offense on Sunday.
(Just in case you forgot the result of that Carr INT back in week 12)
Date: January, 7th 2024
Start Time: 1pmET/11amPT
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Stadium: Caesars Superdone
Key Players- Offense
Bijan Robinson- Falcons RB
In the season's most important game, Atlanta will have to rely on their top playmaker, Bijan Robinson, on offense. In week 12 against the Saints, Bijan ran for 91 yards and caught three passes for 32 yards, scoring once through the air and once on the ground. Bijan is also just 52 rushing yards away from reaching 1,000 yards in his rookie campaign. I fully suspect Arthur Smith will get the ball into his top playmakers' hands on Sunday.
Chris Olave- Saints WR
I went with Olave in the first Falcons-Saints preview, and I'm sticking with him this week as Alvin Kamara is questionable with an ankle injury, so a lot of targets could be heading Olave's way. Olave is sitting at 1,067 yards receiving and four touchdowns on the year. Again, he caught 114 of those yards against Atlanta back in week 12. Atlanta's defense struggled last week defending D.J. Moore, and the Saints' offense will look to do the same in week 12 with Olave in the season finale.
Key Players- Defense
Kaden Elliss- Falcons LB
Elliss has done very well for the Falcons' defense this season. Currently second on the team in tackles (behind Jessie Bates with 119 tackles). But, Elliss also has four sacks, something Atlanta has struggled to get this season as their 21st in the league with 39 total sacks. I'd like to see Atlanta get to Carr on Sunday and use Eliss. Again, Carr threw for over 300 yards against Atlanta back in week 12. The Dirty Birds will have to slow Carr down by getting into his face and putting him into the ground.
Paulson Adebo- Saints CB
The Saints' defense has been successful this year because of Adebo. Adebo has four interceptions, which is tied for seventh in the league. He also has 17 passes defended, tied for 3rd in the league. On top of that, Adebo also had two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in the 2023 campaign. Adebo has been a turnover machine for the Saints' defense, and he'll be lining up against a Falcons offense that threw four interceptions a week prior.
Points Spread: ATL +3 (-110) | NO -3 (-110)
Moneyline: ATL (+136) | NO (-162)
Over/Under: O 42.5 (-104) | U 42.5 (-118)
Lines via FanDuel as of Saturday. January 6th
Coming off of last week's blowout loss against the Chicago Bears has left some steam in the Falcons' locker room (CP retweeted this tweet...) and within the Falcons' fanbase, once again calling for Arthur Smith's job. The offense turned over the ball four times against Chicago (three interceptions by Heinicke and one by Ridder). Arguably, the only bright spot in that game was a 75-yard screen pass to Tyler Allgeier that went for a touchdown. Overall, it was an ugly game, as the defense failed to stop D.J Moore and the Bears' passing game, which then turned into the Bears running all over the Falcons' defense. And I'll say it again: the Falcons turned the ball over FOUR TIMES. No game will be won that way.
Taylor Heinicke is set to start on Sunday; however, he is listed as questionable on the injury report against the Saints, putting Desmond Ridder in as QB1 for Sunday. If there is at least one takeaway from this season, neither Heinicke nor Ridder should be the Falcons starter next year. They both simply turnover the ball too much, with 15 interceptions between both the quarterbacks, and that's not including fumbles. It would be one thing if they had the touchdowns to back that up, but they also have 15 touchdown passes combined this year. If Arthur Smith remains the coach for next year, I don't see a way these two can be behind the center for next year.
Alright, mini-rant over. The Falcons' offense sits at 26th in points and 18th in yards, while the passing attack is still at the bottom half of the league in both yards and touchdowns, but the rushing offense is still in the top 10 in the league if only Atlanta just had a good quarterback... (and maybe a new OC too). Even after giving up 37 points to the Bears, the Falcons' defense is ninth in points and eleventh in yards against some light in the darkness. But, the defense will still have their work cut for them going up against a Saints' offense that put up 444 yards back in Week 12.
If New Orleans weren't also in the same situation as Atlanta to get into the playoffs, it would be easy for me to pick Atlanta to win. However, this game is in New Orleans, and Atlanta has only had two wins in the Superdome since 2019. New Orleans is just a tough place to play for the Falcons, and vice-versa with the Saints in Atlanta. With two tough defenses going against each other, this game will come down to who has the better offense, and on paper, that's the Saints. If Atlanta can get the running game going and, more importantly, limit the turnovers, Atlanta should have a fighting chance. However, playing in the Superdome and the state of the Falcons' offense, it's hard for me to pick the Dirty Birds to come out on top. But, hopefully, my next Falcons piece will be about the Dirty Birds getting into the playoffs; either way, I'll have whatever happens next with the Falcons right here on ThirdDownThursdays!
Prediction: NO-28, ATL-16
(Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)