The shakeup has arrived. The Falcons surged to 3-3 after six games, limped their way to 4-4 after squeaking out a win over the Panthers, and then immediately dropped four of their next five games. The bye figured to be a time for the team to make changes if they were struggling, and they did.
The big one is Desmond Ridder being elevated to the starting job in place of Marcus Mariota, with other lineup tweaks possible but not yet announced. The team is hoping that a moribund passing attack will come to life with the rookie at the helm, but more than that, they’re hoping to rescue a season that would be on life support if not for the Buccaneers also being a lousy football team. Finishing the year strong may matter for the postseason and it may not, but it would mean a great deal if the Falcons felt they had the quarterback and the foundation they can work with in 2023, when they’ll have the ability to make major additions for the first time in a long while.
The first obstacle in their way over the final four games? The hated Saints, who are the worst team in the NFC South record-wise and also in general. New Orleans is struggling mightily and has a dim future, but they still have a capable defense and enough weapons to hurt this Falcons squad on a good day, and they get to play this one at home. That means they’re a fine test for an Atlanta team that has had a couple of weeks to focus on what has been ailing them and make fixes.
How will this turn out, and how do these two teams match up? Let’s talk about it here, and be sure to check this Story Stream daily for more news and updates from Week 15.
Falcons - Saints comparison
If you were to look just at these rankings blind without the actual teams and records, you might not conclude that the Saints are worse than the Falcons. Blessedly, they have been.
New Orleans still has a pretty good defense, at least a productive passing attack at first glance, and a weak but not broken ground game. That probably should be a recipe for a slightly better team than we’ve seen, especially because they’re 3-3 in close games. But they aren’t, and these numbers sort of obscure the fact that the Saints have been beaten by good teams, bad teams, and teams in between in sometimes horrifying fashion.
Turnovers are a culprit—the Saints give away too many drives and can’t get the big, game-changing turnovers on defense—but they’re just not very good. The 49ers shut them out 13-0 a couple of weeks ago, the Buccaneers just came back and embarrassed them 17-16, and the Steelers and Ravens combined to beat them 47-23 in back-to-back weeks after the Saints managed their lone win against the pathetic Rams over their last five. The offense is no longer good enough without Drew Brees and Sean Payton, no matter how impressive Chris Olave may be, and the defense is quite good but has lost its knack for coming up with a big, game-changing interception or fumble recovery.
All that adds up to a bad team, but the Falcons have been a bad team of late as well. Still one of the league’s leading lights when it comes to running the ball, Atlanta’s pass defense has improved slightly with A.J. Terrell back in the fold and special teams can help them stay in games. The passing attack has been brutal, however—again, a big reason they’re turning to Ridder—and the run defense has been a tremendous liability for weeks now. Against a solid but unspectacular New Orleans run defense and passing attack, the Falcons should have a pretty good shot, but obviously we’ll need to a better version of the team than we’ve seen in...well, a while.
How the Saints have changed
It hasn’t been that long since we saw the Saints, though it feels like a tiny eternity. Since that Week 1 frustration in Atlanta, New Orleans has changed in a couple important ways.
The first is the way the passing game has shifted, which may actually be a plus for the Falcons. Noted bird killer Jameis Winston, who turned into a Super Saiyan version of himself every time he played the Falcons, is parked on the bench in favor of Andy Dalton. The Falcons have only seen Dalton three times in his career, but he was effective against Atlanta in pretty much all of them, albeit when he was younger and playing on more interesting Bengals teams. Michael Thomas is also gone after having a discouraging amount of success against the Falcons in Week 1, and the hope will be that trading out Winston and Thomas for Dalton and Rashid Shaheed will prove to be a downgrade for New Orleans.
Frankly, the other big change is the perception of this team. I thought the Saints would probably be worse than national pundits expected, but still a solid enough squad. Instead, the Saints are on the downslope and fading out of the spotlight after years of wild regular season success and spectacular postseason failures. The future and the present no longer look all that bright in New Orleans.
What lies ahead
When these two teams play, you can usually throw all of your expectations out the window. The only thing that’s usually fair to expect is a close game with a fairly wild finish.
That’s about the shape of this one, too. The Saints have been awful for a long time now, with their offensive woes making Atlanta’s look positively benign, but they also haven’t faced many weak defenses over the past month-plus. The Falcons haven’t been able to throw effectively in just as long, but they’re also making a big change at quarterback that could make that better. Neither team figures to do anything spectacular on offense—Atlanta may be able to simply bludgeon the Saints to death via the run, which would be swell—but obviously a low-scoring slugfest probably favors New Orleans’ superior defense. You should not be stunned to see this one end, like, 21-19.
I do think the Falcons can and should win this, though. As difficult as a road victory might sound for a team this shaky, Atlanta would seem to have a better shot at hitting on some of those deep strikes they’ve wanted in the passing game with Ridder under center, and their knack for a timely turnover hasn’t disappeared. Coupled with a bye that gave a smart coaching staff a chance to try to address Atlanta’s biggest woes, and adding in a dash of Dennis Allen seeming to be over his head on the opposite sideline, and I like to think the Falcons will come out of their bye a bit stronger than their justly lousy opponent this week.
Really, it’s likely to come down to what the Falcons do with their big play opportunities on both sides of the ball, Younghoe Koo’s leg, and their commitment to and excellence at running the ball. If things click in a way they haven’t in recent weeks through the air in particular, they ought to win this one and re-kindle some excitement for the final three weeks, especially with a Kyler Murray-less Arizona squad coming up. If not, well, it’s going to be awfully depressing to lose to the Saints twice in one season, especially when it’s this Saints team.
Don’t forget to check out all our coverage! We’re transitioning to using this article as our storystream for each matchup, so you can find all our Falcons - Saints articles below.