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What to know about Falcons vs. Saints in Week 18

The season finale carries postseason stakes, but more importantly, it carries rivalry stakes.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons finish their 2023 regular season in New Orleans Sunday when they face the Saints, and barring a big upset from the Panthers against the Buccaneers, it’s the last game we’ll watch from them until the autumn of 2024.

That’s a major disappointment given what we thought this season might look like, but it is what it is at this point. Atlanta’s only option is to try to take care of the business in front of them, beat their longtime rival, and see whether Arthur Smith survives the lackluster nature of this year. Everything else is outside of their control.

If the Falcons are going to win, it’s going to take the best they have to offer on both sides of the ball, with a little bit of turnover luck like they had last time out against the Saints. Here’s what you should know about the matchup ahead.

Falcons - Saints head-to-head comparison

New Orleans is simply a better football team than Atlanta, even if it’s not by leaps and bounds. That will make a 2-0 record against them in 2023 much funnier, if the Falcons can pull that off.

An inconsistent passing attack for New Orleans has still mostly been their best facet on offense, and they’re leaps and bounds better than the Falcons in that regard. They also largely limit their turnovers while forcing plenty and playing a relatively stingy brand of defense, and that has fueled the limited success the team has enjoyed this year. Fortunately for the Falcons, they do not run the ball all that effectively and do not boast an effective run defense.

We know the Falcons’ story by now. They have an anemic, inconsistent passing attack, a ground game that has regressed since last year but remains at least solid, and a defense capable of shutdown play against lesser teams but prone to bad stretches. They match up fairly well against New Orleans, as we saw last time out, but that’s only true if we get the good version of this football team.

How the Saints have changed since the last matchup

They haven’t, really. They’re still the most low-down, loathsome assemblage of football players, coaches, and personnel the modern world has ever known, and they still have one of the worst cap pictures and roster situations in football. May 2024 finally be the year that they sink into the muck and disappear from relevance for a while, even if I doubt we’ll be so lucky.

What to know about Sunday’s game

A Buccaneers win will remove any playoff intrigue from this matchup, but our two fanbases don’t really care about the postseason. We care about which of these teams beats the hell out of the other one, as is just.

The Falcons can’t redeem a lost season entirely, playoffs or no, but going 2-0 against the Saints would be a consolation prize of sorts. The last time New Orleans lost both games against Atlanta in a single season, it was 2017 and we were quasi-enjoying a winning year we didn’t realize would be our last for a long time. It feels within reach, but it’s entirely dependent on which version of these Falcons show up.

The version from last time would be helpful. In that one, the Falcons mostly smothered the Saints’ rushing attack (including notorious pest Taysom Hill), limited their own mistakes and capitalized on New Orleans’, and ran the ball very effectively. That simple recipe powered an impressive win over the Colts just a couple of weeks ago, and is exactly the formula that can win them this game. It’s just that we’ve learned by now not to expect that team to show up when we really want them to.

The Saints, for their part, will hope to snuff out any remaining life in Atlanta’s offense. They’ve won three of their past four games chiefly by limiting the damage on defense, with a combined 25 points allowed to the Panthers, Buccaneers, and Giants. That’s just as much about the opponents as it is about the Saints’ defense, which predictably went to pieces against a very good Rams team, allowing over 450 yards and 30 points. Defensively this Saints team is not quite the juggernaut of yesteryear in many ways and are far more reliant on turnovers than they used to be, sitting at 4-0 when they get three turnovers or more and 5-2 when they get two or more. They still boast a good, capable defense, as they should given that it’s the side of the ball head coach Dennis Allen specializes in.

Offensively things are a bit more of a mixed bag, and the Falcons have an opportunity to bounce back from their disastrous showing against Chicago in New Orleans. Derek Carr has come on a bit after his 300 yard empty calorie showing against the Falcons last time out, with 10 touchdowns versus just two interceptions over the past four games, but remains a passer who can be rattled. He is also not a threat to run, which has been Atlanta’s Achilles heel at times this season. The Saints also are not a real threat to repeat the stellar day on the ground we just saw from Khalil Herbert, given that they have rushed for over 100 yards as a team just once in the past month, and that was last week against the Buccaneers for just 108. The Saints will grind their way forward with the run regardless, but they’ll intend to win and have to win through the air, and it will take a much sharper day from Atlanta’s secondary to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The formula is as simple as it has ever been. If the Falcons can run the ball effectively, avoid turnovers and dial up even a handful of useful passing plays, and force a turnover or two of their own while making Carr jittery, they should be able to win this game. If they can’t do those things, or even just a couple of them, they’re probably going to finish 7-10 for the third straight season. All I really know is that I’d badly like them to beat the Saints, regardless of what happens next.