Thursday Night Preview: Falcons vs. Saints

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Updated: October 15, 2015
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It was third-and-2 late in Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins, and the Atlanta Falcons possessed the ball deep in the red zone with less than a minute to play. It was 16-12, the Redskins had the lead and needed just one last stop. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan found Devonta Freeman on a quick slant, and Freeman dove into the end zone for the touchdown. But, he didn’t hold on to the ball when hitting the ground, so the play was reviewed and overturned.

No biggie. After converting the fourth-and-2 on a quick pass to Roddy White, the Falcons decided to give Freeman another opportunity to win the game. They called a delayed handoff to the 5-foot-8 running back, and he shook off a tackle and scored again. This time it counted. The Falcons took a 19-16 lead, and eventually held on in overtime after a Robert Alford pick-six of Kirk Cousins led to a 25-19 victory.

That game in itself, proved the type of guts and attitude this year’s Falcons team has under new head coach Dan Quinn. They’ve been unflappable, and they’ve come up big late in games week in and week out. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter said, the Falcons are the first team in NFL history to start the season 5-0 after trailing in four of those games at some point in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta will head to New Orleans Thursday night to face a Saints team that can’t find any momentum this year. They beat the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in Week 4, as Drew Brees connected with C.J. Spiller for an 80-yard touchdown to end the game. You would have thought that would give the Saints some confidence moving forward, but the Philadelphia Eagles — who have struggled on offense this season — stomped them Sunday, 39-17.

By just looking at Atlanta and New Orleans’ records, this game would seem to be a walk in the park for the visiting Falcons. But, there’s a reason why these divisional games are also called rivalries. The Falcons lead the regular-season series 48-43, but you could bet your bottom dollar that this one won’t be an easy victory — especially on the road at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Falcons star wide receiver Julio Jones has been hampered by a hamstring injury over the past two weeks, as his production was limited against the Redskins — just five catches for 67 yards. He is expected to play Thursday night, but don’t be surprised if you see Atlanta stick with Freeman and the running game to get things going. It took them awhile to find a rhythm offensively against Washington, as they tried to spread them out and take advantage of a beat up secondary. But the Redskins’ defensive backs played well, and forced the Falcons to rush the ball.

Freeman had no problem doing so. He rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries, including the one rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Rookie running back Tevin Coleman is also healthy now, but Freeman will likely continue to get the bulk of the carries. He’s tied for second in the NFL with 405 rushing yards, and leads the league with eight rushing touchdowns. The amazing part about that: he only had 43 yards rushing and one touchdown after the first two games of the season. In the past three weeks, he has 362 yards on the ground for seven touchdowns, as well as 17 receptions for 177 yards. It’s safe to say he’s become a huge part of their offense.

The Saints have the last ranked defense in the NFL, giving up 409 total yards per game, with an average of 135.8 of those coming on the ground (30th in the NFL). They’ll have their hands full trying to contain Freeman, while also stopping Jones — who is reportedly feeling a lot better this week.

Despite the stats, this is definitely a game the Saints could win — if their defense can get a few stops and the offense plays efficiently. You can throw records out the window during rivalry games, and knowing Brees and Sean Payton, they still feel they have a shot to win their division. So be prepared for an NFC South battle between two teams who seem to be headed in different directions.

Josiah Turner

Josiah Turner

Josiah is the founder and editor-in-chief at Sideline Sports Report. He is a writer for ESPN, and has written for Rant Sports and FanSided covering the Washington Redskins. He's also covered high school basketball for Virginia Preps (Rivals.com). Josiah is from Chesapeake, VA and a college graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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