The Atlanta Falcons' roller-coaster season will finally end against their bitter rivals. The high-and-lows of this season have been something that fans haven't endured since the Jim Mora Jr. era. Atlanta infamously started 5-2 in 2005 and 6-2 in 2006, but those promising seasons crashed into disappointing finishes of 8-8 in 2005 and 7-9 in 2006. Dan Quinn will look to avoid ending his first season in Atlanta on a bitter note.
There are no playoff implications, but this game still has plenty to recommend it. It would look terrible for the Falcons to get swept by arguably the worst New Orleans team during the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era. They would also go 1-5 in the division, which is a complete reversal from going 5-1 last season in an otherwise sour year. Devonta Freeman hasn't forgotten about the bitter loss the first time around, either. Here is what you should be watching for on Sunday.
During Monday's press conference, Dan Quinn emphasized that more young players and backups will play extensively on Sunday. The coaching staff will be evaluating the long-term prospects of each player on the roster. Fringe players such as Philip Wheeler, Charles Godfrey, and Malliciah Goodman are going to play more snaps than usual as the team weighs who returns in 2016.
It will be important for the rookies to play more often. Jalen Collins has been reduced to special teams duty over the past three weeks. While Philip Adams is coming off his best game of the season, Collins could use more experience. New Orleans doesn't feature speedy wide receivers like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns or Ted Ginn and Philly Brown. Besides Brandin Cooks, Collins shouldn't be overwhelmed by any Saints wide receivers. If Grady Jarrett is healthy, he should be playing 35-40 snaps at minimum.A combination of Jarrett and Ra'Shede Hageman will give fans an early look at what should be the future starting defensive tackle duo.
Not allowing a repeat performance from Benjamin Watson
In a season full of bizarre moments, Benjamin Watson's resurgence ranks high on my list. The 35 year-old tight end has exceeded 600 yards for the time since 2010. Many analysts have mentioned how Payton's offense sets tight ends in favorable positions. With play-action being an integral part of his weekly game plan, it allows Watson to run past over-aggressive linebackers. Paul Worrilow bit on several play-action fakes and was always two steps behind Watson in the first matchup. William Moore was noticeably behind on multiple Watson catches as well.
Quinn has started to rotate even more players around his defensive formations. Nate Stupar (27 snaps) actually played more than Worrilow (19 snaps) last week. That seems fitting as Atlanta surprisingly held Greg Olsen to just four catches for 40 yards. The yearly issue of covering tight ends hasn't gone away, despite the coaching change. Stupar and Godfrey played key roles behind containing the Pro Bowl tight end, though. While relying on career backups isn't ideal, it was easily the best defensive performance against an above average tight end this season. That should provide some much-needed confidence going into this matchup. Justin Durant didn't play in the first meeting either. His return should be a massive upgrade over Joplo Bartu, who was forced to play 40 snaps the last time around. These modifications should help them contain the ageless wonder.
Third down efficiency
One of the more notable stats about Atlanta's two-game winning streak is their improved third down stop rate. Jacksonville failed to convert any of their eight third-down attempts, while Carolina was just four of ten last week. On the other side of the ball, they completed seven of fourteen against Jacksonville and nine of sixteen against Carolina. Ryan has started to look towards Roddy White more often. They've been more successful than expected, given White's inability to create much separation. Atlanta is actually ranked third in third down conversion rate for the season. This show how much weekly turnovers and wasted red-zone opportunities have derailed their ability to score more than 21 points.
It will be crucial to get the better of New Orleans on third downs. The offense was dreadful in the first meeting by going three of twelve, which included five dropped passes. Leonard Hankerson and Devonta Freeman dropped two passes each. They won't have to worry about the aforementioned Hankerson, but Freeman needs to return to his reliable ways.
Despite their weekly comical coverage breakdowns, the Saints always tend to play well against division rivals. Targeting liabilities such as Brandon Browner and Darnell Ellerbe can only benefit Ryan, who has to contend with an offensive line that has a tough matchup against one of the league's most versatile defenders.
Containing Cameron Jordan
Besides not covering Watson, the Falcons were unable to block Jordan for most of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, the under-appreciated pass rusher had three sacks, one hit, and six hurries. It was one of the rare poor games for Ryan Schraeder. He was manhandled repeatedly on running downs. New Orleans loves to move Jordan around across the line similar to how Seattle utilizes Michael Bennett. When they moved him inside, Jordan victimized Chris Chester on all three sacks, and a combination of explosiveness and strength at the point of attack makes him an absolute nightmare.
On a defense lacking playmakers, Atlanta needs to double-team him more often. New Orleans doesn't possess another pass-rushing threat that can pose severe problems. At 287 pounds, Jordan is a special athlete that can bully opposing tackles and glide past guards without much resistance. They can't allow him to take over again and disrupt Ryan's rhythm. If they can contain him and not fumble twice in the red zone, there is no reason why this offense can't score 30 points on Sunday. Julio Jones chasing multiple records will only boost their case at breaking the thirty-point barrier for the first time since week four.
Potential final game for several players
With only five draft picks at their disposal, the Falcons will be very active in free agency. Freeing up cap space is going to be a priority. The likely candidates to be released are Tyson Jackson, William Moore, Devin Hester, and Roddy White. It's very unfortunate that Moore's career in Atlanta likely ended from that humiliating defeat against Carolina. Moore and Jackson are expected to individually make over $4.5 million next season, while Hester would be owed three million. Hester will always be beloved, but keeping an expensive 33-year old returner isn't rational. Kyle Shanahan not using him as a wide receiver doesn't help his cause either.
Following a mini late-season resurgence, White has started to turn some heads. The organization could ask him to take a pay cut similar to Marques Colston in New Orleans. White is such an iconic figure in Atlanta, along with being one of the true locker room leaders. Many fans couldn't imagine the long-time Falcon playing somewhere else. Then again, fans said the same about DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and Steve Smith in Carolina. When teams need to be aggressive in free agency, any declining or overpaid player is liable towards being released. Savor the possible last game for one of the true all-time Falcon greats. Fans (including myself) still haven't forgotten about John Abraham's abrupt release. Don't be blindsided by White getting cut. At 34 years old and being a complete afterthought in several games, it's evident that he isn't a number two wide receiver anymore, even if we love him.