We all vividly remember the heartbreak of Atlanta's first, and only, loss of the season, to New Orleans, in New Orleans. With a win on Thursday, and a Tampa Bay loss to the Denver
Tebows Mannings Broncos on Sunday, the Falcons can clinch the NFC South. Wouldn't that be delightful?
Looking at overall statistics, the offensive similarities between the Falcons and the Saints are interesting. The Falcons are averaging 26.7 points per game, 385.9 yards per game, 297.6 passing yards per game, and 88.3 rushing yards per game. The Saints are averaging 28 points per game, 381.9 total yards per game, 290.5 passing yards per game, and 91.5 rushing yards per game.
The Saints have, for whatever reason, been a nuisance for Mike Smith's Falcons during his tenure, but the 2012 Saints have such significant weaknesses that there is no reason the Falcons cannot exploit them, and win on Thursday.
Atlanta's offense needs to improve their red zone efficiency, especially against a team that the NFL Network says approximately 3,000 times per day can "score at will." You beat Drew Brees and the Saints by taking advantage of their defensive weaknesses and putting up more points than they do. The Falcons are averaging 4.1 red zone opportunities per game, and are converting 55.56% of those into touchdowns. Improving in this area is necessary for Thursday's game, and also looking toward the playoffs.
Considering that the New Orleans defense is still ranked dead last in the league, averaging 454.8 yards allowed per game, the onus is really on Atlanta's defense to step up and limit Drew Brees and company.
The Saints really exploited Atlanta's weakness against the run when the teams met in New Orleans, and the Falcons proved last week against a formidable rushing threat in Tampa Bay's Doug Martin that they absolutely can limit the run.
Brees is a future Hall of Famer for a reason--he's accurate, and he reads defenses efficiently. However, he really does not like to take hits. Like most quarterbacks, Brees' accuracy suffers under pressure. His season average completion rate is 62.4%, but he is completing only 43.4% of passes under pressure.
In week one against the Washington Redskins, Brees had a 46% completion rate and threw two interceptions under significant pressure from Washington's defense, who sacked Brees once, posted two hits, and 15 hurries. The Panthers pressured Brees similarly, picking him off twice, sacking him once, and posting six hits and 11 hurries on Brees. The Chiefs limited Brees to a 55% completion percentage, with three sacks, four hits, and 10 hurries. The 49ers exploited New Orleans' pass blocking weaknesses effectively last Sunday, posting seven sacks and 15 hurries, limiting Brees to 267 passing yards, and picking him off twice.
In their first meeting, the Falcons did not sack Brees at all, and just hit him once. They did hurry Brees nine times, but there is significant room for improvement there. Atlanta missed Sean Weatherspoon in that first meeting with the Saints. Spoon is a very effective pass rusher--Pro Football Focus premium stats have him rated third on the team in pass rushing, and credit him with three sacks, three hits, and seven hurries in 47 pass rushing snaps, in a season that has been limited due to his lingering ankle injury.
In my extremely biased and not particularly balanced opinion, the Falcons absolutely need a win against the Saints on Thursday. Sure, they are awfully close to locking up the division no matter what happens against the Saints, and with a two-ish game lead on San Francisco (I'm not certain how ties play into playoff seeding) and a two game lead on Chicago, the Falcons remain in great position to ensure that the road to the Super Bowl will go through the Georgia Dome. But, the Falcons need to move beyond the mental block of not being able to handle the Saints.
With home playoff games looming, and the ever-present "can they win the big game" discussion surrounding this Falcons team, the Falcons have to know that they can beat anyone, including the Saints, in the Georgia Dome. The fact is, with the talent they have on the field and on the coaching staff, they absolutely can beat any team in this league. Regardless of their record, the Saints remain one of the most talented, challenging offenses in the league. If the Falcons handle their business and walk away with a win on Thursday, it will put Drew Brees, and everyone else, on notice regarding who really owns this division this season. With an 11-1 record after Thursday's game, it would be difficult to argue that it's anyone but the Falcons.