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Falcons vs. Saints: 4 Key Matchups for Week 16

Coming off a tough loss at home, the Falcons head to New Orleans, where they must win to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta's Week 1 victory over New Orleans set the tone for what would become a tight race in the NFC South. It had everything you'd expect from this rivalry: loads of offense, porous defense, some huge mistakes and, naturally, opposing fans at each other's throat.

Of course, we had no idea this race would be so historically awful.

Fast forward several months and these two clubs are still in contention for the division crown -- despite the fact that neither can finish above .500. This has, predictably, led to a lot of fun at their expense, including a recent edition of Breaking Madden.

Yet, a lot remains on the line.

Fans appear to be split on the idea of a postseason berth. Some would rather miss out and take a higher draft pick, as the Falcons have virtually no chance of winning Super Bowl XLIX; others would love to see the Dome rocking, if only for the spectacle.

Given the Braves' recent moves, I think our city should embrace any opportunity to host a playoff game. But I digress...

Sunday's contest has the potential to be an instant classic. The talent is split fairly evenly between the two sides. Four of their last five meetings have been decided by six or less points. Per usual, trash talk has been lobbed in both directions.

Here are four key matchups to watch on Sunday.

Julio Jones vs. his injured hip

The Falcons' chances don't hinge solely on Julio Jones, but winning without him would be a tall task. It appears he will be a game-time decision.

If Jones does suit up, he should be in for a big day -- even at less-than-100 percent health. New Orleans is among the worst pass coverage teams in the NFL, checking at 28th on Pro Football Focus, and was torched by Atlanta in Week 1. Jairus Byrd's presence is sorely missed, and the Saints' band of defensive backs -- comprised of Keenan Lewis, Corey White and Kenny Vaccaro, among others -- leaves a lot to be desired.

If Jones does not suit up, the Falcons will need Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester to step up as they did against Pittsburgh, when they combined for 274 receiving yards on 22 receptions.

Jimmy Graham vs. Atlanta's linebackers and safeties

Jimmy Graham's production has dipped a bit from last year, but he's still one of the NFL's most dangerous tight ends. And, since he tends to feast on Atlanta's defense, there's good reason to believe he's in for a big day.

Graham, who has seven touchdowns in nine career games against the Falcons, is a tough matchup for Mike Nolan's unit, which boasts little talent at the linebacker position. It sure doesn't help that strong safety William Moore is hurt and has been limited in practice.

Junior Galette vs. Jake Matthews

Outside linebacker Junior Galette is one of the league's more dangerous edge rushers. He's currently injured and will play a limited role, but that was the case last week, and he still sacked Jay Cutler twice. He has nine total sacks on the year.

Jake Matthews should have his hands full with the Temple University product when the two clash. A month ago, such a matchup would warrant heaps of anxiety; however, Matthews' play has improved tremendously of late. His PFF score has been even or positive for three straight weeks -- a stark contrast from the middle of the year, when he was deep in the red.

Mark Ingram vs. Atlanta's defensive line

Despite missing three games, Mark Ingram is on pace to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career. Considering Atlanta's underwhelming run defense, which has surrendered 19 rushing TDs in 2014, he poses a major threat.

Ingram is a physical back who doesn't shy away from big hits, so it will be crucial for Paul Soliai and his fellow down linemen to corral him at the point of attack. According to PFF, Ingram has 492 yards after contact this season -- good for 2.5 per attempt.

Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Graham will have their fun. But, if the Falcons can't stop Ingram, or at least slow him down, it may be impossible for Atlanta keep up with New Orleans' potent offense.

Which matchups will you be watching?