This game is absolutely critical. In some ways, this is the crux of the entire season, as the Falcons will be two games behind the Saints if they lose this, and will have been beaten by their division rivals twice. The tie breaker in that case would firmly be in New Orleans' court, and it's likely that the Falcons would have enough difficulty rallying to even make the playoffs. This is the big time, right here.
And for the first time all season, I don't think this is a game the Falcons really have a good chance of winning. Because life has a good sense of humor, this may well be the week they win. But they don't match up well with the Saints at all. Let's look at the whys and wherefores, shall we?
The O: If the Falcons' offense was a horse, it would have one leg, an eyepatch, and it would be running backwards. Putting up less than 20 points on the Lions, Browns, and Ravens in quick succession provides for a gruesome spectacle, and it's not like the team has exuded confidence past that. The Saints have been terrible in coverage the last few weeks, so if there was ever a good week for Vick to throw for 300 yards and 3 TDs, this would be the one. That's unlikely, however; therein lies the problem. The passing game can't get going. The receivers are prone to drops. The offensive philosophy isn't changing. The running game isn't getting involved nearly enough. As long as those things continue, there's approximately no chance of the Falcons winning this game, as it's likely to turn into a shootout early on. Meanwhile, the Saints have an incredible passing game. Drew Brees has made all the difference in the world to this team, as well as Marques Colston. If he's healthy and playing, the Falcons have a lot of problems in the secondary. Meanwhile, the running game is averaging 94.9 yards per game, a respectable but hardly great number. McAllister can be contained, and the Falcons' pursuit athletes are exactly the remedy for the speedy but ineffective Reggie Bush, who should be sytmied consistently. The Falcons have the better offensive line, and they must press their advantage by running often. This will free up the passing game and give Vick a chance to bounce around and throw on the run. It's going to take a lot for the Saints to be outperformed on offense, however.
The Wing Edge: New Orleans, whose offense is red hot at a time where Atlanta's is blue cold.
The D: The Falcons have been steadily getting worse on pass defense, which couldn't come at a worse time. They'll need some blanket coverage from Hall and Williams to stand a chance in this game. The rush defense has allowed 98.5 yards per game, which almost squares with what New Orleans has managed. The Falcons must shut down the pass and let McAllister and Bush try to beat them. An aerial blowout is likely to be reflected in the score; if the Saints pile up 150 yards on the ground, it may not guarantee them the win. With Big John Abraham coming back and Josh Mallard available for spot duty, the pass rush should be excellent this week. The key to the whole game might be Michael Boley, who is really emerging as a standout linebacker this year and has a knack for authoring game changing plays. The Saints will turn to a secondary filled with rejects from other teams who have made a niche for themselves here, but smart route running may be enough to crack them. Mike McKenzie is especially susceptible to sudden directional changes, so Lelie should try to post up on him whenever possible. The Saints have a standout front seven, with Scott Fujita, Will Smith, and Charles Grant providing a lot of pressure. The New Orleans defense epitomizes solid, and the Falcons defense is plenty capable but will need to roll out of bed and have some Wheaties to hang in there.
The Wing Edge: New Orleans, by a slim margin. Not a ton of big play potential for a defense that's gotten eaten alive the last few weeks, but the Falcons' D has been just as inconistent.
The ST: Morten Andersen continues to do basically whatever's asked of him with a amazing resiliency, especially for someone who used to ride a triceratops to work. Koenen has struggled much of the year, with some inexplicable shankings that have made me cringe. The Falcons will need a consistent performance from both, considering that the Saints can move up the field very quickly. Pinning them behind their own 20 can make things a lot easier. The return team isn't likely to factor too strongly into the game, but a couple of nice returns by Rossum can make a difference, as the Falcons clearly need help with field position. The Saints just signed Billy Cundiff to handle some of the longer kicking duties and some kickoffs. Carney's been struggling the last few weeks and it was necessary to get help, but c'mon, this is Billy Freakin' Cundiff. If he's in on a critical long field goal, I'm not scared in the slightest. Steve Weatherford handles punts for the Saints, and he manages to get them inside the 20 about 21% of the time, which is solid. He's not a huge weapon for the Saints in this game, however. Reggie Bush handles a lot of returns, and he's been unspectacular there as well. The Saints' special teams aren't working real hard to impress, essentially.
The Wing Edge: Atlanta. The Falcons have good players who are a little inconsistent. The Saints have good players who are very inconsistent. Point, set, match.
Overall Wing Edge: New Orleans by a wide margin. Purely on paper, they have the potential to slaughter the Falcons. As we all know, the NFL is a potent and mysterious force, so that may not happen. But you'd be a fool to bet a against a team that has such a potent passing game.
Prediction: New Orleans wins. Brees throws for 300+ yards, the Falcons refuse to go to the run, and I wrestle angrily with my television.