The Falcons and Saints do not like one another, and their games are usually physical affairs with plenty of shoving, accusations of cheap shots and the like. That makes it relatively easy to pick impact matchups.
Three of these center on the Falcons' defense, the unit that will be most sorely tested in this game and the one that most needs to have a great game for Atlanta to leave the Georgia Dome with a win. The offensive line, Lamar Holmes in particular, will be worth watching against Cameron Jordan & Co., but these matchups stand out even more in my eyes.
Oh, and a good fifth matchup would be Falcon fans vs. Saints fans. No love lost there, either.
Paul Soliai vs. Jonathan Goodwin
Soliai, by benefit of his girth if nothing else, will be facing off against more than just Goodwin most snaps. It's just that the 35-year-old former San Francisco center may offer Soliai's best opportunity to wreak havoc.
The Falcons don't have a great edge rush, at least on paper, and the book on Drew Brees is that the best pressure is pressure on the interior. You want to flush him out of the pocket, force him to make throws he's not comfortable making while on the run, and try to herd him toward your ends and outside linebackers. The best way to do that is to destroy the interior line, get into the backfield and put someone right in his face. With Brees, anything less than furious pressure and outstretched arms is only intermittently effective, anyways.
Soliai will be key. He's not really a pass rusher, but he's got the size and strength necessary to push guys out of the way and allow those behind him to make a play. In Goodwin, he's got an effective but aging center to bully, and a much easier target than Jahri Evans or Ben Grubbs, the two guards next to him. Soliai won't always have the opportunity to square off against Goodwin, of course, but he can make those opportunities count. If Goodwin an the guards can stonewall Soliai and the team's DTs in four down linemen sets, things get easier for Brees and the Saints.
Julio Jones/Roddy White/Harry Douglas vs. Patrick Robinson
Lost in all the smoke about how good Keenan Lewis really is—and he's a legitimate #1 cornerback in the NFL, questions of relative greatness aside—is that the Saints really have a weakness at cornerback beyond him. It's arguably their greatest weakness anywhere, not just on the defensive side of the ball.
Part of that is Robinson, the team's nominal #2 and someone who could charitably be described as alright in coverage. The Saints may be able to pair Lewis with Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a rangy rookie with real talent, as soon as 2015. This year, though, it's likely that the soon-to-be 27-year-old Robinson will continue to ply his mediocre trade on the open field.
This is great news for the Falcons, who won't be 100% sure of their ground attack and offensive line strength right off the bat. Matt Ryan should make it a point to attack Robinson no matter who he is covering until the Saints are (hopefully) forced to divert resources to help him out, which may free up other receivers. Even if the Saints are giving Robinson help right off the bat, I'd do what I could to pick on him.
Anyone Covering Jimmy Graham vs. Jimmy Graham
Kroy Biermann did pretty nice work limiting the damage with Graham last year against the Saints, but coming off an injury and with a different set of duties in 2014, you can't count on him doing so again. The Falcons are going to mix and match their coverages on Graham, but one thing is clear: They have to put a stop to him.
The Saints have legitimate weapons all over, of course, between the reliable Marques Colston, the promising young rookie Brandin Cooks and deep threat Kenny Stills, though he may not play. Still, besides applying consistent interior pressure to Drew Brees, nothing slows this offense down more effectively than taking Graham out of the play, because he is arguably the most talented player on the field for New Orleans. That's especially true because the Falcons no longer have to deal with Darren Sproles, who killed them catching passes out of the backfield last year.
Stopping Graham is not easy to do, obviously. Mike Nolan needs to find the right guy(s) to match up against him, stymie him at the line of scrimmage and keep up with him as he runs his routes. You're probably not going to hold Graham without a catch, but if you can keep him out of the end zone and limit his targets, you're forcing Brees to go to his receivers with greater frequency, and Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and company should be able to hang with the likes of Colston and Cooks on most plays.
Falcons Defense vs. Shayne Graham
In 2012, Shayne Graham hit 81.6% of his kicks, a fairly middling percentage for an NFL kicker. In 2013, he kicked a grand total of two field goals for the Saints.
This is the guy the Saints will turn to on field goals tries. Graham is capable of booming long field goals, but time isn't doing his leg any favors and his consistency isn't what it once was. With that in mind, the Falcons can do themselves a huge favor not just by forcing three-and-outs, but by doing so outside of Graham's range. A team like the Saints can score from anywhere on the field, so you never want to give them points on an otherwise failed drive, even if three points feels like limiting the damage. If the team is aggressive and can put the brakes on the offense by, say, the 30 yard line, they'll force Graham to face the outer limits of his range at this stage of his career and perhaps even force the Saints to contemplate a punt. Every bit helps.
What are your matchups to watch?