The Atlanta Falcons will kick off Week 12 action in the NFL Thursday night when they welcome their old nemesis New Orleans into the Georgia Dome.
New Orleans has dominated the Falcons since head coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006, and this year's disappointing Falcons season began with a 23-17 loss to the Saints.
Since the Falcons are all but out of the NFC playoff picture now, they'll be playing for pride for the rest of the season. Will a prime-time matchup against the rival Saints be enough to fire up a Falcons team that's lost four straight games by double digits?
Let's discuss the state of the Saints before we breakdown the keys to the game for the Falcons as they look to play spoiler against division-leading New Orleans.
State of the Saints
In many ways, the Saints are having the season that the Falcons expected to have. At 8-2, their only losses have come on the road by total of 10 points, and they're undefeated in NFC play.
New Orleans got arguably its most impressive win of the season in Week 11 when it beat San Francisco 23-20 at the Superdome. The week before that, the Saints offense set a league record for first downs in a game in a 49-17 romp over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.
While the Saints are rolling, they did experience a slight setback this week when they had to place starting cornerback Jabari Greer on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Greer broke up potential game-winning passes in two of the Saints' recent victories over the Falcons in 2012 (Week 10) and 2011 (Week 10).
Keys When Atlanta Has the Ball: Falcons Offense vs. Saints Defense
1. Establish the Run and Stick With It
The New York Jets ran for 198 yards on 36 carries against the Saints in their Week 9 win at Metlife Stadium. In doing so, the Jets proved that the Saints can be vulnerable against the run between the tackles because their linebackers have a tendency to take poor tackling angles like David Hawthorne did in the play shown below from that contest.
The Falcons have beaten the Saints three times since Mike Smith took over in 2008. In all three of those wins, Atlanta established the run early and controlled the tempo of the game by pounding the rock.
Joe Hawley played well at center in place of Peter Konz last week, and if he can build off of that performance, it'll go a long way towards helping the Falcons solve their issues in the run game.
In addition, Atlanta needs reserve running back Antone Smith to prove that the explosive runs he produced against the Bucs weren't a fluke.
2. Convert Third Downs and Stay On the Field
Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan has to help his defense by keeping the offense on the field for extended drives. That's going to require the Falcons to convert third downs.
If Atlanta establishes the run, they should put themselves at an advantage on third down and avoid some of the exotic blitzes that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been known to run.
Both of the teams that have beaten the Saints this season won the time of possession battle. In the Saints' Week 1 win over the Falcons, they held the ball over 10 minutes longer than Atlanta did.
3. Score Early and Seize the Momentum
It's going to be important for Atlanta to score early in this game and build some confidence after four straight losses. Moreover, if Atlanta wants to have any kind of home-field advantage, they'll need to score early to keep the Atlanta crowd on their side.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith acknowledged that his team hasn't done a good job of handling momentum swings in games during this four-game losing streak. Atlanta can't let the momentum start on the Saints' side on Thursday night because if it does, it may never swing back once the Saints get rolling.
4. Test the Saints Cornerbacks
With Jabari Greer out of the lineup, the Saints will be relying on veteran Keenan Lewis, journeyman Chris Carr and a group of young cornerbacks that includes Corey White, Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade. Of that group, look for White to start for Greer.
Atlanta's passing game hasn't been where it needs to be lately, but Harry Douglas, Roddy White and Darius Johnson should be able to create some opportunities against this Saints cornerback group if Matt Ryan gets the protection he needs up front.
Once they establish the run game, the Falcons need to give Douglas, White and Johnson a chance to win one-on-one matchups downfield.
5. Be Aggressive
This prime-time matchup isn't the time for the Falcons to come out and keep things close to the vest. With Atlanta sitting at 2-8, this game against the rival Saints provides an opportunity for the Falcons to save some face with their fanbase by putting the Saints two games behind the Seahawks for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
In fact, since the Saints have a date in Seattle next Monday night, and if they lose in Atlanta and Seattle, they could easily end up tied or behind Carolina for the division lead in two weeks.
The chance to knock the Saints down off of their perch should be more than enough motivation for the Falcons to come out with some aggression Thursday night and take out their frustration on New Orleans.
Keys When New Orleans has the Ball: Saints Offense vs. Falcons Defense
1. Pick One of Drew Brees' Weapons and Take Them Away
The Patriots took away Saints' tight end Jimmy Graham with Aqib Talib, and the Jets limited the Saints' running back trio to 41 yards on 12 carries. It's nearly impossible to shut down this entire Saints offense, but taking away one of Brees' weapons is doable.
Atlanta's defense must decide whether to key on Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles or Marques Colston.
By taking one of Brees' targets completely out of the game, Atlanta could generate just a little more time for its front four to pressure Drew Brees in the pocket.
2. Get Drew Brees Off of His Spots with Pressure from Front Four
Somebody along the Falcons front four has to win their pass-rushing matchup up front so the Falcons can get pressure on Drew Brees without having to blitz. In the past, John Abraham did that for the Falcons against the Saints. It's going to be up to Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Massaquoi, Peria Jerry or Jonathan Babineaux Thursday night.
If the Falcons have to blitz to get consistent pressure on Brees, they'll have a hard time covering guys like Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and Darren Sproles when Brees throws to his hot reads.
3. Make the Saints Kick Field Goals in the Red Zone
The Saints have one of those offenses that can move the ball even when the defense is playing well. The key to beating them when they're in that kind of rhythm is to force them to kick field goals when they get down into the red zone.
In order to have the opportunity to win in the red zone, the Falcons are probably going to have stop their season-long streak of giving up at least one explosive play of 40 yards or more per game to opposing offenses.
4. Do Not Let the Saints Get Anything Going On the Ground
The Dallas Cowboys got a taste of what happens when you allow this Saints offense to get going on the ground in Week 10 when New Orleans ran for 242 yards. Drew Brees and the Saints passing game is tough enough to stop when they're forced to be one dimensional.
If Atlanta can't limit the Saints rushing attack, this game will get ugly very quickly, and the Georgia Dome will sound like the Superdome by the fourth quarter.
5. Take Advantage of Brees' Mistakes
Drew Brees threw five interceptions in his last trip to Atlanta. In Week 1, Falcons rookie cornerback Robert Alford was able to pick Brees off, but Atlanta safety William Moore dropped a potential interception deep in Atlanta territory.
Brees is a top-five quarterback in this league, but he's not immune from getting into gunslinger mode when games get tight. If any Falcons defenders get their hands on the ball Thursday night, they've got to take it away because giving Drew Brees second chances isn't a recipe for success.
Special Teams Keys for Atlanta
1. Limit Darren Sproles in the Return Game
The Falcons have faced their share of dangerous return men this season, but Darren Sproles may be the toughest of them all because of his combination of speed and elusiveness. He doesn't need much of a crease to take a return to the house.
Sproles is listed as questionable to play after suffering an anke injury against the San Francisco 49ers at the weekend. However, Atlanta's special teams units had one of their worst outings of the season last week against Tampa Bay largely because of the blocked punt they gave up, and they've got to rebound quickly this week and be disciplined in their coverage against Sproles if he plays.
A kick or punt return for a touchdown by Sproles could create the kind of momentum swing that the Falcons haven't been able to overcome this year.
2. Surprise the Saints With a Fake Punt, Fake Field Goal or Onside Kick
Atlanta doesn't have much to lose at this point, so it would behoove them to take a page out of Tampa Bay's book and a surprise special teams play Thursday night against New Orleans.
Who Will Win Thursday Night's Saints-Falcons Game?
Upsets usually happen in this league when the underdog team seizes momentum and throws the favored team out of its game plan early on. That's particularly true in rivalry games like this one.
Mike Smith may need to find his inner riverboat gambler to get the Falcons out of this four-game lull.
The Falcons haven't given anyone reason to believe that they're capable of beating a red-hot Saints team, but stranger things have happened in this league. If Atlanta can execute the keys discussed above, they should at least be able to get this game into the fourth quarter.