Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans Saints should be wary of ‘third-and-long’ Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, in Atlanta. The Falcons next game is in the divisional playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 15. The Falcons host the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, in Atlanta. The Falcons next game is in the divisional playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 15. The Falcons host the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. AP

Two game situations seem to encapsulate where the New Orleans Saints and the Falcons find themselves heading into Thursday’s primetime matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.

After 13 weeks of the NFL season:

▪  The Saints are facing first-and-goal with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees under center and “Boom & Zoom’’ running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara poised to pounce.

▪  The Falcons are facing third-and-long and hoping for a football miracle to get them in the playoffs.

And while the Saints are solidly atop the NFC South after winning nine of their last 10 games and sweeping the season series from the Carolina Panthers, Coach Sean Payton will not allow his team to count its current winnings while sitting at the table.

The fourth and final quarter must be played before they or any team can cash out.

Indeed, the defending NFC South champion Falcons are in serious trouble and in danger of being dethroned after falling at home Sunday to the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings 14-9, dropping them two games behind the Saints and into third place in the division.

But they ain’t dead yet, though doubters/realists have started up the hearse.

They now hold down seventh in the NFC playoff seedings, trailing Minnesota (10-2), Philadelphia (10-2). Los Angeles Rams (9-3), New Orleans (9-3), Seattle (8-4) and Carolina (8-4), suggesting one more misstep down the stretch could doom their playoff chances.

The Falcons still have two cracks at New Orleans in a span of 17 days, the rematch coming on Christmas Eve afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and games at Tampa Bay in Week 15 and against Carolina at home to close out the regular season.

First things first.

“The Benz will be rockin’ on Thursday night,” Falcons quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan vowed.

The question is will the Falcons be rollin’ or will they get rocked by a runaway Saints team that has played nearly as well on the road (4-2) as it has at home (5-1), both offensively and defensively which wasn’t the case last season when Atlanta easily swept the season series.

The Saints amassed 64 points and 947 total yards in the two losses.

Atlanta countered with 83 points and 907 total yards, leading by 20 points in Game 1 and 25 points in Game 2 and winning comfortably both times, 45-32 and 38-32.

Ryan and his passel of playmakers might find the sledding a little tougher this season since the Saints have rediscovered the meaning of team defense. And the Falcons speedy defense must find some way to neutralize “Boom & Zoom’’ who have combined for 200 yards from scrimmage in five consecutive games.

If not, the Falcons likely will go from third-and-long to fourth-and-forever.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

Game plan

Who: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

When: 7:25 p.m., Thursday

TV: NBC, NFL Network

Radio: 870 AM, 105.3 FM

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