For Saints rookie sensation Alvin Kamara, a rematch with rival Atlanta is all about unfinished business.
Kamara, who has 1,336 yards from scrimmage and a team-leading 12 touchdowns as both a runner and receiver, played little in New Orleans’ first meeting with the Falcons.
He was knocked out of the Dec. 7 game in Atlanta with a concussion during the Saints’ first offensive series and watched the rest of the game, which the Saints lost 20-17, on a television in the locker room.
“It was annoying, really. That’s all I can say. Of course I wanted to play, but we’ve got another one,” said Kamara, who was selected to the Pro Bowl this week along with fellow Saints running back Mark Ingram. “We can get some payback. So I think that’s what we’re kind of looking at.”
If the Saints (10-4) do indeed get payback, they'll clinch their first playoff berth since 2013 and also could win the NFC South with a Carolina loss.
If Atlanta (9-5) wins, it'll have swept the season series with New Orleans for a second straight season and could move into a first-place tie with the Panthers.
The versatile Kamara is one of three Saints players – along with Ingram and receiver Michael Thomas – who have gained more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether Kamara’s return tips the balance against the Falcons, who’ve won five of their past six and have a dynamic running back tandem of their own in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
“If you like running back play, this is the game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “There’s four good ones that all are unique that are all unique catchers, runners, (have) toughness, can make guys miss – all the ingredients that you’re looking for.”
Both teams also have elite quarterbacks in the Saints’ Drew Brees and Falcons’ Matt Ryan.
Both clubs have 1,000-yard receivers, with Thomas last week joining Atlanta’s Julio Jones above that benchmark. Both teams are ranked 11th or better in total defense.
So this rematch is full of story lines. Here are some others:
Atlanta leads the series 52-45 between these regional rivals since both teams were founded in the 1960s.
A little more than two weeks ago, they staged a highly competitive game, with New Orleans threatening to take a late lead until Falcons linebacker Deion Jones made a leaping interception of Brees’ pass to the end zone.
Saints coach Sean Payton was so wound up that he was flagged – and later fined – for running onto the field to yell at an official a few plays later. The penalty allowed Atlanta to run out the clock.
“We definitely feel the pent-up energy when it comes to an Atlanta week and especially after the way we lost the last game” against the Falcons, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “Clearly, we know we have a chance at redemption.”
Payton made a point of calling out officials for inconsistent enforcement after these teams’ previous meeting, going so far as saying it’s a problem the NFL’s leadership needs to address.
Quinn said he did not believe Payton was trying to preemptively influence officials in this week’s rematch. But Quinn also said he didn’t recall anything unusual about the officiating during the teams’ first meeting and added that he generally sees no point in complaining about it after the fact.
“That’s his prerogative and his opinion. I don’t share it,” Quinn said when asked about Payton’s criticism of officials. “Every game is different. The plays are different. The crews are different.”
The Saints have five interceptions in their past two games – including three against Atlanta’s Ryan. They have 16 this season, which is tied for fourth most in the NFL.
Quinn says penalties have nullified six Atlanta interceptions. While Deion Jones had a crucial interception against the Saints, the Falcons have only four all season, tied with Oakland for fewest.
“We know that’s going to be a factor in this game,” Quinn said. “Who takes care of it better, who goes after it better, and who has more explosive plays.”