There won't be much in this game that the New Orleans Saints haven't seen from Atlanta, and vice versa. The teams know each other very well and are bound to play a close game. With both teams playing at a high level, it is becoming one of the most recognizable rivalries league-wide.
David Grunfeld/The Times-PicayuneAtlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 351 yards the last time he played the New Orleans Saints.This time around, the Saints are playing for a chance to clinch the NFC South championship for the second time in three seasons and the third time under Coach Sean Payton. A New Orleans victory would also keep intact that no team in NFC South history has won back-to-back division crowns.
Payton has had much success against the Falcons, going 9-2 against the Dirty Birds since becoming the Saints' coach in 2006, and New Orleans has taken five of the past six meetings. The Saints look to have an advantage because the game is being played on Monday night. The teams have played five times on "Monday Night Football," and the Saints are 4-1. This is the third consecutive season the teams are playing on "MNF."
Matt Ryan passed for 351 yards the last time they met, but historically Ryan hasn't been at his best against the Saints. In six career starts against New Orleans, Ryan is 2-4, and the Saints are one of the two teams Ryan has played more than once against whom he doesn't have a winning record (Philadelphia is the other).
Still, Ryan is having a career season and has more than receiver Roddy White to thank for it. In the offseason, the Falcons gave up a lot in the draft to get Julio Jones, and the rookie receiver is paying off. He has 42 catches for 755 yards and five touchdowns and is developing into a deep threat. And Tony Gonzalez, the ageless wonder at tight end, is second on the team in receptions (74), yards (755) and touchdown catches (seven).
White is again looking like one of the top receivers in the game. He has had three 100-yard receiving games in his past five after having just one such game in his first nine. In his past five games, White has 38 receptions for 537 yards and five touchdowns. He had 10 catches for 135 yards and two scores in last week's 41-14 win against Jacksonville. He's third in the league in catches (85), eighth in yards (1,100) and ninth in touchdowns (eight).
But running back Michael Turner is still the key figure in the Falcons' attack. In Atlanta's nine wins this season, Turner has averaged 90.3 yards per game and scored eight touchdowns. However, in the Falcons' five losses, he only has averaged 63.2 yards per game and scored one touchdown. Taking out a 10-carry, 100-yard performance in Week 1 against Chicago, Turner is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry in the losses. Turner did rush for 96 yards the last time he played the Saints.
John Abraham is coming off one of his best games after posting 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles against the Jaguars. He was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Abraham needs just 1.5 sacks to have his seventh season of 10 sacks or more. He anchors a defense that is ninth in the league in yards allowed per game and fourth against the run. The Saints struggled in this aspect last game, gaining only 41 yards.
Sean Witherspoon, a player many Saints fans coveted in the 2010 draft, has 107 tackles and is tied with Lawrence Sidbury for second on the team, with four sacks. Curtis Lofton leads the team in tackles with 124, fifth in the league. Lofton finished with nine tackles against the Saints last time and has made 10 or more tackles six times.
Atlanta's secondary is primed to get a boost, as Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden are looking to return from injury. Grimes has missed three games because of a knee injury, and Hayden has been out since Nov. 20 with a toe injury. Grimes has one interception but leads the team with 12 pass deflections.
FALCONS SPECIAL TEAMS
Eric Weems was one of the best return men in the league last season but has been mediocre this season, as the Falcons rank 18th in punt-return and kick-return averages. Weems is averaging 23.3 yards per kick return and 9.9 yards per punt return and has yet to return one for a touchdown.
Kicker Matt Bryant has been a steady force this season. After making 90.3 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, Bryant is hitting 92 percent (23-of-25) this season. Bryant, who once kicked a 62-yarder with Tampa Bay, has a long this season of 50.
Matt Bosher has placed 26 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, sixth-most in the NFL. He's averaging 42.1 yards per punt and a 39.1 net averag,e and only three of his punts have been touchbacks. Opponents are only averaging 4.7 yards a return against Atlanta this season.
LAST TIME THEY MET
Nov. 13, 2011, Georgia Dome
John Kasay kicked a 26-yard field goal in overtime to give the Saints a 26-23 victory. New Orleans seemingly had things in control when Kasay kicked a 44-yarder to give the Saints a 23-13 lead with 7:13 remaining, but the Falcons stormed back. Ryan threw a career-high 52 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. Harry Douglas gave the Saints' defense fits and finished with eight receptions for 133 yards. Saints safety Roman Harper finished with a season-high 13 tackles, including a sack, two tackles for losses and one pass deflection and was credited with two quarterback hits.