ATLANTA - In the NFL, every game counts. But none are more important than the five-week stretch of games to end the season.
With conference matchups becoming more relevant and division games affecting the landscape of the playoff race, teams are fighting for division crowns and wild card spots in hopes of continuing their season in January.
The Atlanta Falcons currently find themselves in the mix of NFC teams competing for one of the two wild card spots.
Coming off a 14-9 loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the Falcons (7-5) sit in third place in the NFC South and need a win to keep their playoff hopes intact.
For the Falcons to do that, however, they will have to get a win against one of their most-hated NFC South rivals, the New Orleans Saints, when the two teams play Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Currently, the Saints (9-3) lead the NFC South and are playing efficiently on offense and defense.
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Over the years, regardless of the two team’s respective records, the matchups are always physical and often come down to the final possession of the game.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan knows that when the two teams meet Thursday night, the emotion and competition that comes with this division game will be no different from previous years.
“It’s always tough playing New Orleans,” Ryan said in an article to ESPN reporter Vaughn McClure. “They’re very well coached. They’re playing great this year. Obviously, their record proves that. You know these games are going to come down to the end of the game, last possession. Most of the time, at least throughout my career, it’s been that way… I’m sure the Benz will be rocking on Thursday night.”
Thursday night games have always brought about a greater sense of pride and competitive spirit from fans of both teams in their respective domes.
Dating back to 2006 when the NFL Network began airing Thursday Night football games, the Georgia Dome was the site for some unforgettable wins and moments for the Falcons.
With the recent implosion of the Georgia Dome, the venue is gone but the memories may last forever.
Atlanta now has the chance to play its first Thursday night game in front of its home crowd in its new stadium.
The Falcons are 5-4 all-time in Thursday night games and 1-2 versus the Saints. The Saints are 3-3 in Thursday night matchups and 2-1 against the Falcons, with both of their victories against Atlanta coming inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The last Thursday night game between the two came in 2015, when the Falcons lost to the Saints, 31-21.
Atlanta’s only victory against New Orleans on Thursday night was in 2012, when the Falcons defeated the Saints, 23-13, at the Georgia Dome.
As the regular season comes to an end and playoff implications continue to rise, Atlanta needs a win but the Falcons have a tall task ahead of them.
To prevent back-to-back losses at home in a matter of five days, the Falcons must keep Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense off the field as much as possible by playing solid defense, controlling and winning the battle in time of possession and exploiting the Saints’ weaknesses on defense.
The Saints enter Thursday night’s game ranked second in total offense, averaging 409 yards and just over 29 points per game.
New Orleans is also third in rush offense (143 yards per game) third in pass offense (266 yards per game) and sixth in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (60 percent) this season.
The Falcons, who have dealt with several injuries on defense this season, will get cornerback Desmond Trufant back for Thursday’s game after he suffered a collision with teammate Keanu Neal in Week 12 against Tampa Bay.
His presence on the field will make a difference in some of Brees’ decisions when targeting his wide receivers.
Defensively, the Falcons are eighth in total defense, giving up 321 yards and 20 points per game. Against the run, the Falcons are 18th (113 yards per game) and sixth in pass defense (allowing 208 yards per game).
The Saints have witnessed much of their stability on offense with a successful running game behind the play of running backs Mark Ingram and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara.
Ingram has rushed for 922 yards and nine touchdowns this season, while Kamara has rushed for 606 and seven touchdowns.
The Falcons will need to use a strong push up front from the defensive line and the linebackers pitching in to help slow down the Saints' rushing attack.
If they do, the Saints will become one-dimensional, forcing Brees to throw a lot more than he wants to and most likely putting him under pressure in the pocket.
Offensively, the Falcons must get back to their routine of using a solid rushing to allow for Ryan to take shots through the air and make better decisions on first and second down to prevent long third-down situations.
Against the Vikings, Atlanta went 1-for-10 on third down. Ryan finished with only 173 passing yards, while Coleman and Freeman rushed for a combined 96 yards.
To beat the Saints, the Falcons must establish the run early. New Orleans, which in previous years has been inconsistent and giving up big chunks of yards on defense, enters Thursday night’s game ranked 12th in total defense (allowing 330 yards per game), 11th in pass defense and 17th in rush defense, giving up 4.62 yards per rush.
New Orleans also ranks seventh in sacks per play behind the play of defensive end Cameron Jordan's 10 sacks.
It is not certain as to whether Saints' cornerback Marshon Lattimore will be playing in Thursday’s game due to an ankle injury. If he does, it will be a major asset for the Saints' secondary because they will be tasked with stopping the Falcons' talented core of wide receivers that include Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.
PREVIOUS MEETING: In Week 17 last season, the Falcons’ offense got off to a very hot start, taking a 14-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Atlanta’s dominance continued in the second quarter as Ryan threw three touchdowns, giving the Falcons a 35-13 lead at halftime.
In the second half, the Saints rallied, but the Falcons held on to win, 38-32. Ryan threw four touchdowns.
Coleman and Freeman combined for 140 yards. Jones tallied seven catches for 96 yards, while Freeman caught five passes for 81 yards.
Defensively, the Falcons surrendered 350 yards through the air and 132 yards on the ground.
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