The Atlanta Falcons look to avenge their only loss of the season as their NFC South rivals, the New Orleans Saints, come to town for Thursday Night Football.
The Falcons (10-1) are in first place in the NFC South and have football's best record. Their early-season successes were due (in large part) to one of the easiest schedules in the league. However, wins against Denver, Washington and Tampa Bay are nothing to shake a stick at.
If the Falcons beat the Saints on Thursday, there's little reason why they couldn't finish the season with only that lone loss on their record.
The Saints (5-6) have been a disappointment by their standards, though they certainly have plenty of excuses after an offseason marred by drama and suspensions. Their defense isn't getting any stops, and their offense isn't as high octane as in years past. As the mistakes pile up, the Saints will run out of chances and may be looking toward next year by next week.
So, who wins on Thursday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Can the Atlanta Falcons Solve Their Saints Problem?
The Falcons are 10-1 this season, but 0-1 against their chief divisional rival. Matt Ryan is 2-6 against the Saints, and it would not be too much to say that his career would probably look a lot different if he was 6-2 against them.
Not only in 2012, but for the past decade, the Saints have stood in the way of the Falcons' ascension to prominence time and again. Every time it looks like the Falcons are ready for prime time, there's the Saints reminding them who's on top.
This year should be different; the Saints' offseason woes opened the door, and Ryan and the Falcons just need to walk through it.
A second loss against the Saints tonight sets up a blueprint to beating the Falcons. Moreover, it gives the Saints new life and an outside shot at the playoffs (setting up a possible playoff matchup).
The Falcons have been a good (maybe great team) this season, but the Saints continue to be a pest. Atlanta needs to take care of business in a big way on Thursday night.
Key Storyline No. 2: Are The Saints Done, or Is There Some Magic Left In Them?
As mentioned above, it's possible (though unlikely) that the Saints still have some hope for the playoffs. However, a loss to the Falcons would all but clinch the NFC South for the Falcons and leave the Saints on the outside looking in.
Now, maybe most of you are thinking that's already the case. Likely, you're correct. It would be an astronomical upset, an almost Disney movie-like story if the Saints were to win in Week 13, run the table and make the playoffs. If the Saints were able to do that, with all the chips stacked against them, and somehow make the Super Bowl in a year it's being played in New Orleans, I would buy the book rights immediately.
None of that is possible without a win tonight. As much as the Falcons need to take care of business, the Saints are fighting for their lives.
Keys for the New Orleans Saints
Offensively, the Saints learned a few things in their last meeting with the Falcons that should hold true on Thursday as well. Running the ball and being in manageable third downs will keep the sack totals low. On those third downs, there's no one on the Falcons who can stop Jimmy Graham.
Though the Falcons are sure to have learned from some of their mistakes, that's truly the Saints' blueprint. If Brees drops back 50 times, he's probably going to end up on his back and watching as the Falcons head the other direction with a few of his passes. Meanwhile, if the Falcons are going to put all of their third-down eggs into the "stopping Graham" basket, he can make them pay with one of his many other talented receivers.
On defense, the opposite holds true. The Saints were able to turn the Falcons into a one-dimensional team and made sure their coverage was ready with 11 passes defended. While they only got one sack, they had Ryan on his toes all night, and he didn't settle in until it was too late.
Had there been a fifth quarter last time, the Falcons probably would've won, but Brees and Garrett Hartley slammed the door.
Keys for the Atlanta Falcons
Sixteen carries last time around? Really Falcons, really? If Michael Turner can't get it done (note: he probably can't), let Jacquizz Rodgers shoulder some of the load. Rodgers had three carries in their last matchup and converted those carries for 29 total yards. After Tony Gonzalez, he was their best weapon and was seriously underutilized.
Matt Ryan, frankly, needs to be better against the Saints than he has been historically. Gonzalez was a stud last time around, and he's certainly a fine target to throw to, but Ryan needs to make sure he's not settling for shorter routes when Julio Jones and Roddy White are dominating coverages on the outside.
On defense, the Falcons need to stop the Saints rushing attack. Giving up 148 yards on the ground isn't the path to success, and the Saints will try even harder to increase that number in Week 13. Keeping the Saints in 3rd-and-long will mean more short-field chances for the Falcons offense and less time wondering where the heck Graham came from and how he got the ball in the end zone.
Bold Prediction: Drew Brees Throws Three Interceptions
Ultimately, I think the Falcons have it figured out for this week. Mike Smith is a great head coach, and this is a team that (for the most part) has learned to deal with their success in the right way.
In Atlanta, the place should be rocking, and the Saints offense has looked out sync at times this season (though, notably, not in their first matchup with the Falcons). Look for the Saints to be stuck in long downs for most of the night and for the Falcons to dial up some pressure and force Brees into some mistakes.
Player of the Game Prediction: Julio Jones
As noted before, Ryan needs to progress a little more in his routes than, "Oh, Tony's open." Jones is the most physically talented player that will take the field on Thursday night, and he should find all kinds of space against the New Orleans secondary.
Expect Jones to be used as an occasional long threat to loosen up the Saints' run defense, but also look for a steady dose of him on intermediate timing routes while the Saints are preoccupied with trying to cover all of the Falcons' other weapons.
Falcons win convincingly and shut the door on the Saints' playoff chances.
Final Score Prediction: Atlanta 34; New Orleans 23
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."