After a season of misfortune and missteps, Romilly Evans still thinks the Falcons have enough to trouble in in-form Saints
"The Falcons and the Saints know one another inside out, so for that reason alone it shouldn't be a total blow-out."
New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons
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The Atlanta Falcons versus the New Orleans Saints isn't normally a match where you have to stoke the fires of hyperbole. A storied, hotly-contested rivalry which plays out every year to typically determine the fate of the NFC. However, this year, they stand at polarized ends of fortune in the NFC South - the Saints in pole position for the play-offs at (8-2), the Falcons (2-8) already planning for 2014 with the inverse record.
The Falcons' fall from grace has been as marked as it has been surprising. They have now lost four consecutive matches (by a collective score of 135-61) and probed new depths last week in their 41-28 defeat at Tampa. Despite some injuries, their team has not lost its core playmakers but their combined might has palpably diminished.
Problems are often defined at quarterback and Matt Ryan has not been his ice-cool self this term, morphing from "Matty Ice" to "Matty Dice" as he rolled the rock on too many low-probability plays. True, Ryan has been under pressure this season, both from blitzing defenses and chasing-the-game. But the stark reality is, that he has made too many poor throws when in clutch situations. He threw another pick-six against the Bucs and now has eight interceptions in his past four games
Two of those picks were returned for touchdowns, however, so you can argue that Ryan has been severely punished for his crimes. On the flipside, he is riding a 16-game streak for appearances with at least one TD, so it's not as if he's become a bad QB overnight.
The Falcons' rushing attack is instead the root cause of Atlanta's offensive woes. Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have averaged a pitiful 3.5 yards off 170 carries for the current campaign. And while their young offensive line isn't exactly parting the sea for them, you feel they could find a brick wall on an open prairie at the moment.
Head coach Mike Smith effectively endorsed such fears when he suggested introducing Florida State underling Antone Smith into the lead rushing after his showed some promise as time wound down in Tampa. Desperation makes you look for solutions in unlikely places but you get the distinct impression Smith is more than he at first appeared in pre-season. With Snelling out having been arrested on possession of marijuana, now is the perfect time for Smith to grow his own rushing lanes. Even Dallas proved you could run the ball against New Orleans (at least for the first half), so Smith can at least provide the Falcons with some clock control - especially allied to Jackson who appears on the verge of rediscovering some form.
Speaking of "some form", Drew Brees has certainly found it. The Saints' diminutive talisman has connected with 68% of his passes for 3,369 yards with 26 touchdowns already this term - stats which have helped put his offense second in the league (averaging 28.8 points and 419.1 yards per match) only to the relentless Broncos of Denver.
Brees will be salivating at the prospect of taking on a Falcons D which has allowed 29.2 points and 381.9 yards per game tonight. The Super Bowl XLIV MVP caught up with 11 receivers for the second time last week, while he also has Darren Sproles itching to take some more plays on the ground. In short, he looks spoilt for choice.
Time was when this was the divisional decider but much has changed in the south (Carolina's re-emergence has been particularly telling). And while many will rightly assert that the Falcons are staring down a top-ten pick on the 2014 draft, last year's play-off protagonists have not become a bad team overnight. They definitely shouldn't be 10-point underdogs at home, in my book, and should be backed accordingly at a few handicap lines.
After all, the Falcons and the Saints know one another inside out, so for that reason alone it shouldn't be a total blow-out. New Orleans have the shorter of short weeks to contend with (an attritional game against the Niners will have left more bumps and bruises than the Falcons endured when taking their foot off the gas early in Tampa), while Atlanta can speed the clock by exploiting their more promising running channels.
So while their season is over, don't expect the Falcons to fold up their tents and steal away into the night. There's still plenty to play for this evening.
Back Atlanta Falcons (+10) to beat New Orleans Saints on Match Handicap @ 1.84/5 or better
Back Atlanta Falcons (+4.5) to beat New Orleans Saints on First Half Handicap @ 1.834/5 or better
Back Over 21.5 Atlanta Falcons Total Points @ 1.9110/11 or better