The Falcons edged the Saints by just three points when they met a couple of weeks ago. Is a swift revenge on the cards? Neil Harvey previews the action...
"Julio Jones is elite. But a receiver can only catch what's put in front of him. And Matt Ryan has long been prone to losing his radar away from home"
Atlanta Falcons @ New Orleans Saints
Sunday December 24th, 21:00 GMT
Live on Sky Sports
The 10-5 Saints are top of the NFC South. But Atlanta are just a win behind them alongside Carolina, which makes this a crucial game in the race for the playoffs.
New Orleans have surprised me this season. In recent campaigns, their defense was the anchor that weighed them down. But this year it's been the rock upon which they've built their campaign. With 16 interceptions to date, the Saints' secondary ranks among the best in the league. To show how impressive that is, Atlanta have, by comparison, managed just four interceptions. This ability to turn the ball over is a huge weapon. And it could help the Saints make a run deep into the postseason.
As the New Orleans D has been scheming to gain possession, Drew Brees has working equally hard not to lose it. The Saints quarterback is one of the all-time greats. But if he has a fault, it's that in the past he's been prone to boom or bust plays, interspersing touchdowns with interceptions. This year though, he looks a different player, and I must say a better one. Brees isn't throwing the ball as far. Perhaps because of age. But he does seem to be throwing it more wisely. Consequently he's thrown the fewest interceptions of any starting QB in the NFL. Sometimes less is indeed more.
Young Gun is dangerous
The Saints have also started treating their running game as a serious weapon, rather than as just something to allow Brees to have a breather. Mark Ingram has been superb, with 11 touchdowns and an average of more than five yards a carry. Even he has been outshone though by the stunning performances of rookie Alvin Kamara. As a runner, he's averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored seven TDs. While as a receiver he's added 10 yards per catch, and added another five scores. Kamara is young, fast and the real deal. It's no fluke that he leads the team in touchdowns.
So how can Atlanta stop them? Well my opinion is they'll struggle. Yes the Saints lost 20-17 in Atlanta just two weeks ago. But New Orleans have never been great travelers. And home advantage alone should be enough to turn that result around. Likewise, the Falcons aren't the greatest road team and I feel they could crumble under the pressure.
Pressure is something that used to get to Matt Ryan. And judging by last year's Super Bowl capitulation, not much has changed. Julio Jones is elite. But a receiver can only catch what's put in front of him. And Matt Ryan has long been prone to losing his radar away from home.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are as good a double act as their is in the NFL and I can see them making hay against what seems a mediocre run defense. Freeman in particular could punch some holes through the defensive line. The Falcons still look at least one good receiver light though, with Mohammed Sanu never really offering balance to Julio, allowing defences to key in on Atlanta's star wideout.
By contrast, New Orleans have Kamara, Ted Ginn, and now also Willie Snead as options to draw coverage from their star receiver Michael Thomas. And their more balanced offense, boosted by home advantage, should be the key to getting them over the winning line.