All eyes are on the NFL’s best division, the NFC South, as the (9-3) New Orleans Saints take on the (7-5) Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the first time this season (8.25pm ET Thursday).
The Falcons sit two games behind the Saints, but they can still control their destiny if they win this week and again in a fortnight when the two teams meet on Christmas Eve. But a victory over the Saints won’t be easy as the Carolina Panthers learned this past Sunday.
New Orleans defeated Carolina 31-21, sweeping the season series and all but eliminating the Panthers from winning the NFC South. The win got the Saints, now firmly in the driver’s seat, one step closer to winning the divisional crown for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
The divisional race is as tight as any in football right now and one thing is for certain, this is the best on-paper matchup on Thursday night football this year.
Stopping New Orleans’ Should-Be Rookie of the Year
This past spring, New Orleans made Alvin Kamara, out of Tennessee, the 67th overall draft pick (third round) of the draft. Since that time, the not-yet 23-year-old back has dazzled and exceeded every expectation the team had of him in his rookie season.
When the season began, Kamara didn’t seem like he’d be factoring too much into New Orleans’ plans. After all, the team still had seventh year pro Mark Ingram, who showed no signs of slowing down, and had just signed Adrian Peterson, who has been one of the NFL’s best rushers in his 11 year career. So Kamara’s role was always meant to be limited.
Then the Peterson experiment failed miserably as his carries were limited and the Saints couldn’t really get enough production out of him as a result. This opened the door for Kamara to become the number two guy on the depth chart and it was a role he has excelled in. With Peterson gone after the fourth game of the season, Kamara went from getting just a handful of carries per game to at least eight in each game but one since. He has recorded over 100 all-purpose yards in his last five games and has at least one receiving or rushing touchdown in each of his last six games. In fact, in those six games Kamara’s nine touchdowns is the most in the NFL for a single player.
Kamara is on a role but he’s not doing it alone. He is part of a two-headed monster of a rushing attack also featuring the aforementioned Ingram. On the year, Ingram has rushed for over 100 yards four times and has no fewer than 40 all-purpose yards in a single game. He is the workhorse of this rushing attack but to put Kamara’s numbers as of late into perspective, Ingram has just nine touchdowns on the whole year.
In 13 games, Kamara has acquitted himself remarkably well and might even be coming off his best game of the year. Against the Panthers, who have one of the league’s best defenses, Kamara totaled 126 yards and two touchdowns, making him just the third rookie to record 600-plus rushing and receiving yards in the same season.
Can Atlanta Get their Offense Going?
The Falcons have one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL right now and yet, for much of the season, the team has not managed to gel the way they have in the past. In large part, this team is made up of the same pieces from the group that went to the Super Bowl last year but the results have been far different in 2017.
One of the major reasons that a lot of experts tend to site is the fact that the Falcons got a new offensive coordinator in the form of Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian served as a college head coach for USC and Washington in addition to being the offensive coordinator at Alabama. So it’s not that his resume was bad, it was just puzzling that an offense as good as the Falcons had last year would require a coaching change at that position.
Sarkisian isn’t the only one to blame for Atlanta’s offensive struggles. Quarterback Matt Ryan bears a fair share of the blame. Ryan has had his ups and downs this season, throwing for just 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Unlike in the past however, Ryan has had trouble connecting with his favorite target, Julio Jones, with as much consistency as the duo have been accustomed to.
On the year, Jones, one of the most explosive wide receivers in the league, has a whopping seven games, essentially half the season, of recording less than 75 receiving yards. For a player of Jones’ caliber, this is not exactly what you’d expect to see in the box score. However, like Ryan, when Jones has been on, he has been one of the best at his position in the NFL. The problem is that he has been off nearly as much.
The Falcons will need to find a way to get Jones going against a tough Saints defense, which allows an average of just over 217 passing yards per game. Otherwise, it is likely their hopes of winning the division or making the playoffs at all, will come to an end on Thursday night.
Saints at Falcons Influential Stats
- New Orleans is an impressive 11-2-1 ATS in their last 14 games against NFC South opponents.
- Atlanta is just 3-6 ATS in their last nine games.
- The total has gone over in 10 of the last 15 road games for the Saints.
- The total has also gone over in 17 of the last 25 games for the Falcons.
Our Preview’s New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Picks & Betting Predictions
- Turning to our preview’s predictions and picks for this game, the Saints are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now and there is no reason to think they won’t continue their undefeated record against their division this year. Currently, the Saints are 1pt to 2pt road favorites, depending which of the trustworthy United States’ bookies you are looking at. The best betting option in our opinion is to take New Orleans -1pt @ -115 with BetOnline Sportsbook.
- As for the total points likely to be scored in this NFL Thursday night football game, the past history between these two teams speaks for itself. Our prediction is to pick over 53pts, as this should be a bit of a shootout, and again it is BetOnline with the best odds @ -105.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.