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What you need to know about Falcons - Saints in Week 11

New Orleans is atop the division, but we can’t shake the feeling the Falcons can win.

NFL: NOV 28 Saints at Falcons Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hate week. The Falcons get the chance to stay alive in 2020 and dent the fortunes of their oldest foe with a win over the Saints, which makes this the kind of Sunday which could either be utterly delightful or a huge disappointment.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup together, prefacing this by noting that injuries for both teams will obviously play a major role in the outcome, one that we can’t know about until later this week.

Falcons - Saints rankings

Week 11 Comparison

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Giveaways
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Giveaways
Falcons 3-6 14 5 2 18 24 29 31 6 20 6
Saints 7-2 4 12 15 12 13 4 15 2 12 6

The Saints are very good, unfortunately. As you can see above, they are not bottom half of the league in any of the big, broad stroke rankings, either offensively or defensively. That balance is the reason they’ve been so good the last few years, and even in a year where Drew Brees seems to be declining further and their defense is a work in progress, they’re still one of the league’s better teams. I hate that garbage.

The Falcons are improving a bit on defense and are still quite good offensively, but overall they’re obviously an overmatched team on paper. The Saints have handled their business in the NFC South to this point, making Atlanta the last firewall between them and an easy divisional crown. The Falcons will get to prove, with some rest and some time to plan, that they’re up to the task of beating their hated rival. Their strong passing game, at least between the 20s, and improving pass rush may well enable that.

How the Saints have changed since the last time

The Saints reloaded in the hopes of making one final title run with Drew Brees on board, so they didn’t exactly bleed talent. They likely overpaid to keep Taysom Hill, Brees himself, and players like Andrus Peat, but they did so in service of a championship run that we hope will never come.

With those players secured, the Saints made some interesting additions. Emmanuel Sanders is a capable receiver who will likely be more impactful against Atlanta than Michael Thomas, while former Saint Malcolm Jenkins was signed to shore up safety. The team had virtually no draft capital and wound up with Cesar Ruiz (who has not graded out well as an offensive lineman thus far), linebacker Zack Baun (who has barely played), tight end Adam Trautman (productive in limited chances), and Taysom Hill Jr. Tommy Stevens (who is gone). The team was all-in on this year, and guys like Ruiz, Baun and Trautman are really supposed to be part of the next era of Saints football.

The Saints have been good enough that the strategy looks solid, but their biggest addition may prove to be Jameis Winston. The team picked up the longtime Buccaneers quarterback in the offseason with an eye on having real insurance behind Brees and potentially to serve as their long-term starter of the future, and Winston now may have to step in for multiple weeks. I have no idea if he’ll prove to be any less reckless than he was in Tampa Bay, but he’s got a tremendous arm and is capable of stretches of legitimate brilliance. The season’s fortunes will hinge to some extent on how well Winston fares.

What you need to know

The Saints are good. It would be unfair of me, even in my teeth-gritting hatred, to say otherwise. They have one of the best run defenses in football, a solid and improving pass defense, and a balanced offense with a lot to recommend it.

That’s not the say they’re not vulnerable, and they look particularly vulnerable this week. The reality is that the offense may or may not function as smoothly with Winston under center, and the injuries that piled up this past week at positions like wide receiver, tight end, along the defensive line, and in the secondary could be troublesome if they persist into Sunday. These Saints have played in five one score games in 2020 and have won four of them, with their only truly impressive win being the 38-3 thumping of the Buccaneers, which was sort of terrifying to watch. They only put away an ultra-depleted 49ers team late this past week, and as talented and balanced as this team is, they can be beaten by a good team playing at a high level.

The question is whether the Falcons are capable of that kind of performance, and just how destroyed by injuries the Saints will be. A depleted Saints team down Brees, CJ Gardner-Johnson, Marshon Lattimore, and maybe essential blocker Josh Hill would be team the Falcons can absolutely roll by at the height of their powers, but we don’t know whether this team is capable of keeping up its current solid level of play coming out of the bye against a tougher team. We just know they traditionally play the Saints tough and that in a similar situation a year ago, they stomped New Orleans in impressive fashion. We also know that Michael Thomas looks like a shell of himself right now.

It really comes down to this: If Jameis Winston is the best version of Winston and the Saints are pretty healthy, New Orleans probably wins a close game. If Winston is sailing interception-worthy passes over Michael Thomas’s head and the Saints aren’t at full strength otherwise, I’d actually feel pretty comfortable projecting the Falcons to win this one. We’ll see what the injury report says for these two teams as the week wears on, but as is almost always the case, I’m talking myself into the Falcons beating the Saints in the early going.