New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons: Saints yet to find marching beat

Drew Brees
Drew Brees still leading Saints march
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The Saints were blessed last week to get a win over the Browns, but they shouldn't rely on divine intervention in Atlanta, writes Mark Kirwan...

"First, they developed a running game with veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara going for over 1,000 yards each. Second, they got some league average defence from a unit traditionally brutally bad unit thanks to improvements in their secondary."

New Orelans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 18:00 BST
Live on Sky Sports Action

Slow starters in New Orleans

In week three of 2017, the Saints headed to Charlotte at 0-2 to take on divisional rivals Carolina with their season on the line. An 0-3 start will all but end a team's hope of postseason football.

They won that game, and the following seven, finished 11-5 for the season, and would've gone to the NFC Championship game at least but for Marcus Williams' still barely-believable missed tackle against the Vikings.

Standing at 1-1, they look like they're in better health as they prepare for another tough divisional road trip in week three, but they really should be 0-2 again.

Their blushes were spared last week by the Browns' primordial yearning for losses even when it looks impossible not to win. That squeaky victory came after a blowout home loss to FitzMagic and the Bucs.

By contrast, last year's opening weeks saw them play two of the conference finalists last season - the Vikings and Patriots. That's a significant difference in quality.

It should be said that Cleveland, despite their terrible record over the last two seasons, are a much better team this year, especially defensively, and the Buccaneers have clearly underperformed in recent campaigns given their offensive talent, so maybe these opening games were tougher than you might assume.

But Saints backers would've hoped to see them kick on from last season.

Their stunning run in 2017 was built on two upgrades arising out of an all-time draft class.

First, they developed a running game with veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara going for over 1,000 yards each. Second, they got some league average defence from a unit traditionally brutally bad unit thanks to improvements in their secondary.

Now, Ingram is suspended for two more games, and the defence looks to have regressed if the Tampa loss is anything to go by.

Of course, they still have Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Kamara as playmakers, but if the defence doesn't play up to last season's level, the Saints will return to the ranks of also-rans in the NFC.

Falcons collecting injuries

Atlanta somehow lost the Thursday night season opener in Philly. It looked like their red zone woes from last season would continue this year as they failed again and again to convert opportunities into points, and the Eagles swooped to snatch an unlikely victory.

Against the Panthers in week two, they found their claws in the unlikely form of Matt Ryan. The quarterback had two rushing touchdowns and Atlanta went 4-for-4 in the red zone as they improved to 1-1 in a tough divisional game.

That win was all the more impressive because of the defensive losses they'd suffered arising from week one. Linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal were crucial pieces and their injuries could've crippled this defensive unit. They still could cost the Falcons this season, but at least they didn't hit them last week.

Offensive knocks are accumulating too. Devonta Freeman missed last week, and could miss this game. Tevin Coleman had a field day as he dominated carries. Julio Jones is carrying a calf injury, and, perhaps most crucially, lineman Andy Levitre has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

That'll give opposing passrushers some encouragement.

The Picks

With injuries accruing for the Falcons, the Saints have an opportunity to turn their shaky start around. Brees will relish the prospect of picking on a linebacker group that's lost a lot of speed in Jones and a secondary who'll miss Neal.

Also, the NO defence started slowly last year and improved, so you'd hope they can get their act together now too - the Saints have even invested in more talent along the defensive line this offseason, so the ceiling for this group is higher than last.

The road team +3.5 would be preferable, but +3 is acceptable too in this spot, and I'm tempted by the Saints on the Moneyline market too at [2.28].

The case for the overs on the total points at [1.94] is clear from the defensive issues likely on both sides and there's real potential for a shootout.

Michael Thomas is the clear standout receiver in New Orleans now. If you believe this will be a high-scoring game, you can make a case for taking the odds-on 4/5 on him to score anytime.

For a tastier price on a more speculative play, Falcons tight end Austin Hooper appeals as a First Touchdown Scorer option at 16/1. The Atlanta tight end position should see targets in this game as New Orleans' linebacking group is one of the league's weaker outfits. It also seems likely that the Falcons will score first because of homefield advantage and because they have generally started both of their games so far well.

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