Believe me when I say that there are few things I enjoy as much as seeing the Falcons beat the Saints. The glory of the week one victory has sustained me through some very difficult times this season. I had this one penciled in as a loss before the season even started, and it's very possible the Falcons will fall short on Sunday. These teams are pretty evenly matched this season, and this is truly a game that could go either way. While I certainly hope the Falcons win on Sunday, it's sadly not difficult to come up with five reasons Atlanta could lose in the Super Dome this week.
1. Smitty vs. Payton
I'm certain that most Saints fans are aware of Mike Smith's record against the Saints. In addition to being reminded of it ad nauseam, there's also that whole #SaveSmitty thing that speaks volumes about how Saints fans feel about Atlanta's head coach. Mike Smith is 4-9 against the Saints in his tenure as head coach, and if I had to identify the main reason the Falcons will lose this game, that would be my prediction. Mike Smith has been particularly unsuccessful against the Saints in New Orleans, with a 1-5 record against the Saints in the Super Dome since 2008.
2. Julio Jones injury
Julio Jones is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but he did not practice all week as he continues to recover from a hip injury suffered against Green Bay. If Julio does play but is not at full speed, that's a huge detriment to Atlanta's offensive attack, and if Julio's out, life instantly gets a lot easier for the Saints on Sunday.
3. William Moore Injury/Falcons Defensive struggles
Likewise, William Moore is listed as questionable for Sunday. I do think Moore will play, and I do think he's physically ready, but if he isn't, this Falcons' defense is a much weaker unit without him on the field. Atlanta's defense has given up a ton of explosive plays and has struggled in many facets of the game, and if Moore is unable to play there's not much about which to be optimistic on that side of the ball, truthfully.
4. Offensive Line Concerns
A very concerning injury for the Falcons is the back injury that sidelined right guard Jonathan Asamoah all week. Asamoah has provided a great deal of interior stability for a unit that has been absolutely decimated by injury. The five current starters, including a rookie undrafted free agent center, James Stone, have meshed very well. If Asamoah can't play, it's not only a disruption to the overall chemistry of the unit, which is fundamentally important, but it puts a lot more pressure on James Stone.
5. The Stupid Super Dome
The Super Dome is a difficult place to play. Yes, the Saints have lost four in a row at home, but prior to that they were pretty much unbeatable within the confines of their own stadium. Saints fans are going to be out in full force, loudly hating the Falcons, and it's going to be challenging environment.
The New Orleans Saints (6-8) and the Atlanta Falcons (5-9) have both won three NFC South titles since the inception of the division in 2002. Tomorrow afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the winner of the contest between the two teams will have the inside track to becoming the first-ever four-time winner of the NFC South division in its 13-year existence.
The Saints and Falcons are built similarly: they both have a franchise quarterback at the helm in Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Skills position playmakers galore with the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. They also both feature below average...actually flat out bad defenses.
Here are five reasons why despite all the similarities between the two teams, the Saints will be 7-8 and the Falcons 5-10 by the time the final whistle blows in the Superdome on Sunday afternoon.
1 - Drew Brees
The Saints quarterback hasn't had his best year in 2014 and yet when we look at his numbers closely, we realize that this perception is much more a result of him having set the bar really high for himself over the years. Brees leads the NFL with a 70% completion rate, which is remarkable given that he is second in the league in passing attempts (574) behind only Andrew Luck of the Colts (582). Brees is also fifth in the NFL in QB rating (101.4). He has 31 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and against Chicago last week he reached the 4000-yard passing yards (4,358) for the ninth season in a row, an NFL record. In the first game against Atlanta, Brees was not at his absolute best, recording one touchdown and one pick while completing "only" 29 of 42 passes (69%) with 333 passing yards. I look for Brees to have a better performance against the Falcons this time around in the Superdome, with maybe less passing yards but a higher completion percentage and more passing touchdowns.
2 - The Falcons Defense
The Saints are really bad defensively. The Falcons are really, really bad defensively. Football Outsiders has New Orleans ranked 30th in the NFL in total defense, the Falcons are 32nd. Atlanta is ranked 31st against the pass (29.6% DVOA) and 29th against the run (2.7% DVOA). Maybe even more concerning for the Falcons when facing a quarterback of the caliber of Drew Brees, Atlanta is ranked dead last in the NFL in sacks (16). In the first matchup in Atlanta, the Falcons did not sack Brees once, despite having the crowd noise on their side. This time around, it's hard to see Atlanta getting consistent pressure on Brees, which is usually the best way to get him off of his game. If the Falcons defense doesn't step up its game, the Saints, who scored 34 points in Atlanta in week one, could score 40-plus points in this game. In fairness, New Orleans might need to score that many points to win this one.
3 - Julio's Hip
The mesmerizing Falcons wide receiver is a machine on the field. But throughout his career, Jones has been a thoroughbred, not a plow horse. Phenomenally gifted, sleek, fast, strong and yet somewhat fragile. When he's 100%, Jones could effortlessly torch the best secondary in the NFL for upwards of 150 yards and three touchdowns. But even though an 80% Julio Jones is better than many "number one" wide receivers in the NFL, the fact that he is unlikely to be completely healthy on Sunday might be what takes the Falcons from scoring 34 points down to scoring only 27 and thus opening the door for the Saints to win a shootout.
4 - Did You Say Home Woes?
Under Sean Payton, New Orleans has been a force to be reckoned with at home. The Saints are 47-24 at home under Payton (including this season) and 24-7 with Payton on the sidelines the past four years. This year, New Orleans is 3-4 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and 3-4 on the road, which is par for the course in a wacky 2014 for the Saints. However, the last time the Saints finished under .500 in the Superdome was seven years ago in 2007 (3-5). Atlanta comes into this game with a 3-4 home record but a 2-5 record on the road, which leads me believe that the Saints will make it a seventh year in a row of being at least 4-4 at home.
5 - Sean Payton vs Mike Smith
In football they say that the "tape doesn't lie." When it comes to Mike Smith and Sean Payton, the head-to-head record doesn't lie either. Since Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008, Payton's Saints are 8-3 against Smith's Falcons (excluding the split in 2012, a year in which Payton was suspended for the season). Payton has swept Smith three times (2009, 2011 and 2013), and tied him twice (2008 and 2010). The odds of Mike Smith's team sweeping Payton's on the road are simply not very high and I expect the Saints head coach to hold a 9-3 edge over Mike Smith after Sunday's game.