After just completing their longest road trip of the season, the Atlanta Falcons are in position to avoid having to make any more treks for quite some time.
The NFC's current front-runners return to the Georgia Dome this week attempting to wrap up a division title and the No. 1 overall seed for the upcoming conference playoffs. Standing in the Falcons' way will be the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who'll be aiming to nail down their own invitation to the postseason when the two NFC South powers collide in a very intriguing Monday night matchup.
Atlanta has already secured a postseason spot and needs to win just one of its two remaining regular-season tests to gain home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. With 2-13 Carolina set to visit the Georgia Dome next week, that prospect appears to be a near certainty.
The Falcons have been dominant at home all throughout the three-year tenure of head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, prevailing in 19 of their 22 games at the Georgia Dome over that successful stretch. Two of those losses came when Ryan was unavailable last season due to a sprained big toe.
Atlanta has more than held its own in enemy venues as well over a current sequence of eight consecutive victories that's given the high-flying club a two-game bulge on its closest NFC competition, including the fellow division member Saints. The Falcons' last three triumphs have all come on the road, the most recent a 34-18 ousting of Seattle last week in which Ryan threw for three touchdowns.
The Falcons' eight-game surge is their longest win streak since ripping off nine straight victories to close out the regular season in 1998, the same year the franchise made its only Super Bowl appearance to date.
New Orleans had been on a highly-impressive tear of its own until stumbling in Baltimore last weekend, with the Ravens putting an end to the Saints' string of six wins in a row by earning a 30-24 decision.
Baltimore was able to come out on top by gashing the Saints for 208 rushing yards, a similar formula the Falcons used to knock off New Orleans at the Superdome in a 27-24 overtime thriller back in Week 3. Atlanta amassed 202 yards on the ground in that contest, with bruising back Michael Turner accounting for 114 of those yards along with a touchdown on 30 attempts.
The setback to the Ravens has made the Saints' goal of capturing a second consecutive NFC South title unlikely, as Atlanta will have to lose to the lowly Panthers in addition to Monday's clash. New Orleans can still clinch a Wild Card berth, however, by winning either this week or its finale at home against Tampa Bay.
The Saints did hand the Falcons their last home defeat by registering a 26-23 verdict during December of last year, though Ryan sat out that game with his toe injury and Turner also didn't play because of a sprained ankle.
Atlanta has won 15 straight times at the Georgia Dome in which Ryan has started, and the standout signal-caller is a stellar 19-1 at home over his three-year career.
Atlanta leads the all-time regular-season series with New Orleans by a 45-37 count and snapped a string of three straight defeats to the Saints with the above-mentioned overtime win at the Superdome in Week 3. The Falcons had lost seven times in an eight-game span against New Orleans, including the previously-noted 26-23 setback at the Georgia Dome with Ryan sidelined during Week 14 of last season, prior to September's result, and will be seeking their first home-and-home sweep of the Saints since 2005 on Monday. New Orleans is 3-1 in its last four visits to Atlanta.
The longtime division foes have also faced off once in the postseason, with Atlanta posting a 27-20 decision at the Superdome in a 1991 NFC First Round Playoff.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 7-2 against the Falcons over his career, while Smith is 2-3 against both Payton and the Saints as a head man.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Though not the juggernaut it was during last year's Super Bowl run, the New Orleans offense is still a dangerous outfit that's compiled the sixth-most total yards in the NFL (377.6 ypg) and had put up 30 points or more in six straight games prior to last week's loss to the Ravens. As usual, most of the damage has come through the air, with quarterback Drew Brees (4122 passing yards, 31 TD, 19 INT) eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark in passing yards for a fifth consecutive year following a 267-yard, three-touchdown performance against Baltimore. The All-Pro triggerman is tied for the league lead in scoring strikes and skillfully directs a diverse vertical attack that contains a wealth of quality targets to throw to. Big-bodied wideout Marques Colston (82 receptions, 1002 yards, 7 TD) is the best of the bunch, while fellow receivers Lance Moore (56 receptions, 8 TD), Devery Henderson (31 receptions, 1 TD) and Robert Meachem (33 receptions, 5 TD) have all made significant contributions and promising rookie tight end Jimmy Graham (25 receptions, 3 TD) had a pair of touchdown grabs last week. Moore was a huge factor in the earlier meeting with the Falcons, racking up a career-best 149 receiving yards and two scores on six catches. The running game was non-existent against Baltimore, however, with the Saints mustering a season-low 27 yards on the ground on 14 attempts. The team was without leading rusher Chris Ivory (683 passing yards, 5 TD) due to a hamstring strain, however, and New Orleans is hopeful the rookie can make it back and add to a deep backfield that also possesses two versatile playmakers in Pierre Thomas (206 rushing yards, 1 TD, 22 receptions) and Reggie Bush (80 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 1 TD).
Brees was able to torch a strong Atlanta secondary for 365 yards and three scores back in Week 3, so it'll be up to the pass-rushing tandem of ends John Abraham (35 tackles, 12 sacks) and Kroy Biermann (32 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) to apply the heat to the New Orleans field general and prevent a repeat. Cornerback Brent Grimes (74 tackles, 5 INT, 22 PD) and free safety Thomas DeCoud (61 tackles, 1 INT) did come up with interceptions of Brees that day, however, and the Falcons are tied for third in the NFL with 19 picks on the season. Teams haven't tested Atlanta that much on the ground this year, mostly because they've often been playing from behind, but the linebacker corps does field a pair of solid stoppers in middle man Curtis Lofton (107 tackles, 2 sacks) and 12th-year vet Mike Peterson (54 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) on the weakside. The combo of Grimes and offseason acquisition Dunta Robinson (44 tackles) stands among the best duos in the NFC.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing yards (122.6 ypg) and was able to run the ball at will against New Orleans back in September, with the powerful Turner (1256 rushing yards, 11 TD, 12 receptions) and capable understudy Jason Snelling (306 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 5 total TD) teaming up for 176 yards on 44 carries as the Falcons held the football for nearly 46 of the game's 73 minutes. That may not necessarily be the game plan on Monday, though, not when the offense also sports a top-tier quarterback in Ryan (3321 passing yards, 25 TD, 9 INT) as well as the league's leading receiver in game-changer Roddy White (106 receptions, 1284 yards, 8 TD). The Saints will also need to pay close attention to veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (62 receptions, 5 TD), who delivered a season-high 110 yards and a touchdown on eight catches in the Week 3 win, and Atlanta played that game without steady second receiver Michael Jenkins (31 receptions, 2 TD) because of an early-season shoulder injury. Ryan has been terrific at home this year, having completed 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions in six Georgia Dome starts, and his poise and intelligence are a big reason why the Falcons are second in the league with a 48.4 percent rate on third downs.
New Orleans will need to shore things up defensively after being pushed around at the point of attack by the physical Ravens last week, and that may involve placing hard-hitting strong safety Roman Harper (88 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) closer to the line of scrimmage to help linebackers Jonathan Vilma (99 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and Danny Clark (55 tackles) keep Turner in check. A secondary that's yielded a league-low 10 touchdown passes and 195 yards per game through the air (4th overall) is plenty good enough to stay with the Atlanta receivers, which enables aggressive coordinator Gregg Williams to dial up an array of blitzes that have often kept enemy quarterbacks off their game. Vilma and Harper rank in the team's top four in sacks, a category led by third-year tackle Sedrick Ellis (40 tackles, 6 sacks), while cornerbacks Jabari Greer (54 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) and Tracy Porter (48 tackles, 1 INT) are both adept at press coverage. Vilma and weakside linebacker Scott Shanle (66 tackles) were each active in these teams' initial matchup, with the two credited with 11 tackles apiece.
There are three absolute must-plays out of this high-profile showdown for use in a critical week in fantasy circles. Atlanta's pairing of Turner and White are both among the elite at their respective positions, while Brees is always starter worthy at the quarterback spot. Ryan's no slouch either, and his consistent numbers merit serious consideration for a place in lineups as well. The Falcons have two other good choices on the roster in tight end Gonzalez and kicker Matt Bryant, who's 27-of-30 on field goal tries this season, but avoid the Atlanta defense if possible this week due to its formidable opponent. Other than Colston, no New Orleans receiver is a strong selection because of all the options that are at Brees' disposal, though Moore's eight touchdowns and huge game against the Falcons in September certainly bear noting. It's also hard to figure out the Saints' backfield situation, as Ivory may not play and Thomas is coming off a serious ankle injury, so one may be better off to look elsewhere.
You could make the argument that the Saints have considerably more riding on this matchup, having yet to sew up a playoff spot and still holding a slim hope of taking the division, and the defending champs should have ample motivation after losing to Atlanta on their home turf earlier in the year. Don't expect the Falcons to take their eye off the prize this week, however, especially with an chance to celebrate an NFC South title by beating their biggest rivals and the opportunity to rest players in the finale. There should be plenty of exciting moments provided by two very good teams here, but a powerful running game and distinct home-field advantage gives Atlanta the ultimate edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 30, Saints 24