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What to know about Falcons - Saints in the season finale

It’s the end of the road for both the 7-9 Falcons and 8-8 Saints.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The season ends on Sunday afternoon with the first-ever 17th regular season game for the Atlanta Falcons. If they lose, they’ll be 7-10 and picking in the top 10 of the 2022 NFL Draft. If they win, they’ll be 8-9, will have knocked the Saints out of the playoffs, and will be picking somewhere between 10 and 16 in the draft, depending on what other teams do on Sunday.

Either way, they have to face the Saints in the season finale, which is only fitting. Both of these teams are in transition phases right now, with Atlanta trying to chart a course toward a more competitive future and the Saints trying to find their way in a post-Drew Brees world. In spite of all these changes, these are still two teams that do not get along with fanbases that actively despite one another, and the Falcons would love to boot New Orleans out of the playoffs entirely en route to that 8 win finish.

This week, the Falcons will need to get by Taysom Hill under center instead of Trevor Siemian, and they’ll have to win at home for only the second time all year. If all goes well, they’ll be helped in that effort by the return of several key players from the reserve/COVID-19 list, including starting safety Jaylinn Hawkins and tight end Hayden Hurst.

Here’s what you need to know for the game ahead.

Team rankings

Falcons - Saints Comparison

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 7-9 27 26 18 30 29 24 19 26 17 20
Saints 8-8 19 29 31 17 4 8 14 4 12 8

If the Saints failing wasn’t so objectively funny, this season would be tragic. Through the first eight weeks of the season, they were 5-2 and looked frustratingly good, driven forward by a quality defense and Jameis Winston playing well under center. An injury to Winston in their win over the Buccaneers in Week 8 changed the entire trajectory of the season, and they’ve since rotated through Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and Ian Book while dealing with a pile-up of injuries and COVID-19 cases. They lost five straight at one point, and while they’ve righted the ship somewhat and have a chance to squeak into the playoffs, what might have been an impressive season for Sean Payton and company in their first full season without Drew Brees has been all over the map.

They’ve been kept afloat by their defense, as Marcus Davenport is finally picking it up, Cam Jordan remains annoyingly excellent, and the secondary has been opportunistic if not always consistent. Against Atlanta’s lukewarm offense, that defense is going to be the key to victory, and besides Hill it’s the thing I’m most apprehensive about heading into this matchup. Their offense has been shakier, as the offensive line is banged up, none of the quarterbacks following Winston have been anywhere close to great, and their receiving corps is largely a bunch of just a guys.

The story of the 2021 Falcons is almost fully written, and it’s one that inspires confidence for this team’s fight and tenacity, rather than anything particularly impressive they’ve done either on offense or defense. The defense has a couple of legitimate playmakers but has been prone to getting smoked on the ground and bled to death by short passes, while the offense is a shell of what we thought Arthur Smith would be able to bring to the table and depressingly a bit of a shell of what Dirk Koetter did bring to the table in 2020. The passing game minus Calvin Ridley and with one of the league’s least effective offensive lines has been dreadful outside of Kyle Pitts magic and some heroic games from Russell Gage.

The lumps this team took this year will be helpful in the years to come, especially for the coaching staff, but the upcoming talent infusion this offseason is very obviously necessary.

How the Saints have changed since the last time

The biggest note here is that we’re going to get Taysom Hill, starting quarterback. Trevor Siemian kept the Saints in it the last time but is not exactly an insipiring player, whereas Hill offers you some upside even with his erratic accuracy. If he had enough attempts to qualify, his bad throw percentage would be the fourth-worst mark in the league, and the Falcons are going to have to punish that inaccuracy.

New Orleans is also banged up. Erik McCoy and Terron Armstead may both miss this game, which would weaken this Saints offensive line considerably. I’d say the Falcons must take advantage of that, but we know how that goes. Marcus Williams, like McCoy, is off the reserve/COVID-19 list but may or may not play, and third-leading receiver TreQuan Smith is hurt. They are a banged up team, in other words, so you may see a few reserves in as well as Hill.

Otherwise, you know the Saints well enough by now to know what they’re bringing to the table.

What you need to know

The only incentives for the Falcons to win this game are pride and making the Saints miserable, but those are of course noble and powerful incentives.

To beat the Saints, the Falcons are going to have to put it together a bit to end the 2021 season. Atlanta’s only put together a couple of well-rounded wins since they last played New Orleans, and with the specter of Kyle Pitts missing this game on the horizon, it’s hard to imagine them passing their way out of this one if the Saints offense is sharp. A suddenly opportunistic defense will have their fair share of opportunities to tip or pick Hill’s passes, but the run defense will need to be far better than it was against the Bills, and it might help if the pass rush showed up for the first time in weeks. The Saints run defense is good enough that it’s not fair to expect Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson to have big games, but hey, keep hope alive.

None of this should be surprising. The fact that this is a divisional game means anything can happen without us so much as blinking, but the Falcons are once again in a situation where they’re outmatched on paper and need to deliver a complete effort to ensure a win. They gave it a hell of an effort against Buffalo, and hopefully without the wind and weather being factors, they’ll deliver all of the effort plus better results against their most hated rival.

The offseason is full of big, weighty questions, ranging from Matt Ryan’s future in Atlanta to just how much retooling is coming for both lines to what to do with priority free agents like Russell Gage and Foye Oluokun. For one more week, though, we’ve got Falcons football, and I hope we get to enjoy it.