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Three matchups that matter for Falcons vs. Saints in Week 17

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This is it! The final game of the 2016 season, and the first game of the 2017 calendar year. Appropriately enough, this last regular season battle will be against the Saints, a team that has been a thorn in the Falcons’ collective beaks for years. Atlanta has beaten them once, and doing so tomorrow will ensure a playoff bye and another ugly, rumor-filled offseason in New Orleans. Okay, the latter was probably happening, regardless.

As always, we’re running down three matchups you should care about for the game ahead.

Matt Ryan versus the Saints defense

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, this game could have an outsized impact on Matt Ryan’s MVP candidacy. If he wins and puts up big numbers here—say 300 yards, 3 touchdowns—he’ll have some of the best stats in the NFL, his team will be 11-5 and the #2 seed in the NFC, and he’ll have presided over the best offensive season in the league. There are still going to be plenty of voters going for Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Ezekiel Elliott, but Ryan would have a puncher’s chance if he does well.

If he doesn’t do well, on the other hand, he’s probably going to get boned out of the MVP for certain. There are a large number of analysts and pundits who want to chalk Ryan’s success up to someone else—be it Julio Jones, Kyle Shanahan, or his offensive line—and they’ll take any excuse they can get to not take him fully seriously. A dud to cap off the year would doom his chances.

For the purposes of this game, though, the matchup is pretty clear: It’s Ryan against a lousy pass defense. The Saints are opportunistic enough to cause a headache or two for #2, but if Ryan’s on top of his game and clicking with his receivers, he should be able to eviscerate New Orleans and propel the Falcons to victory. Lord knows the Falcons aren’t winning if they can’t hang in a shootout.

Michael Thomas versus Robert Alford/Jalen Collins

Thomas is a legitimate stud, a rookie wide receiver with plus size, speed, and receiving ability who has been an absolute nightmare for teams to defend against.

The last time out against Atlanta, Thomas put up a solid 7/71/1 day, but he’s only gotten better since then and the Falcons are down their top cornerback. At different points in the day, Thomas is likely to see some of Alford and some of Collins, and while no one doubts Alford’s ability to keep up with him, Collins is a more interesting matchup. A 6’3” wide receiver like Thomas is exactly the kind of guy Collins was drafted to defend against with his particular blend of length and aggressive play. As Allen Strk has noted, Collins has fared well in recent weeks, but this will be one of his toughest matchups yet. If he and Alford can put a lid on Thomas, the Saints’ passing attack will be diminished.

Of course, Brandin Cooks is still dangerous as hell, but I would say I’m more worried about Thomas on Sunday.

Mark Ingram versus the Falcons run defense

The Falcons’ run defense is still not great, as we’re all aware, and Ingram is having himself one hell of a season. He’s at 940 yards and a 5.1 yards per carry average on the season, running behind a pretty effective New Orleans offensive line. If the Falcons do, for argument’s sake, manage to rattle Drew Brees and contain the Saints’ most dangerous receiving threats, they’ll still need to reckon with Ingram.

If Atlanta can do even a half decent job of that, I think they’ve got this one in the bag. Don’t be one of those people who is guilty of underestimating this New Orleans offense, though, because they are legitimately scary.