Primetime games haven’t exactly been appointment television for NFL fans this season. It’s like Meat Loaf almost said, one out of three ain’t bad. With the Ravens and Steelers set for Sunday Night and the Patriots and Dolphins set for Monday Night, at least we’ve got a real gem on Thursday night between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons opened a two-point favorite, but the NFC South-leading Saints have been the preferred side early in the week and the game is now going off at pick ‘em at several shops, including BetLuckys Sportsbook.
The Saints hit the Mercedes-Benz Stadium surface for the first time and they’ll do so in first place. New Orleans is 9-3 straight up and also 8-4 against the spread. This is a Saints team that started 0-2 straight up and against the spread. The lone straight up blemish came on the road against the Rams two weeks ago and the Saints didn’t even play that bad in the 26-20 loss. Atlanta just had a modest three-game straight up and ATS streak snapped to fall to 7-5 straight up and 5-7 ATS. The Falcons are just 3-3 straight up and ATS at home this season. These teams will play twice in 17 days with the next meeting coming on Christmas Eve in New Orleans.
The development of a running game has been the key to the season for the Saints. It has helped aging quarterback Drew Brees stay sharp and has really helped the Saints defense. New Orleans leads the league in yards per play with 6.4 and also leads the NFL in yards per carry with 5.0. New Orleans also leads the league in completion percentage at 71.5 percent. It is amazing what offensive balance can do. Brees has been the quarterback for all 407 pass attempts and has completed 297 of them for 3,298 yards with a 17/5 TD/INT ratio. Mark Ingram had 5.1 yards per carry and nine yards of 20 or more runs. Alvin Kamara has seven yards per carry and five explosive runs. That duo has 16 rushing touchdowns. Michael Thomas has morphed into the next great NFC South receiver with 75 catches for 875 yards with three touchdowns. The Saints have scored 36 offensive touchdowns this season and are third in the NFL in points. This offense has no holes because everything has worked in unison. Drew Brees hasn’t thrown fewer than 600 passes since 2009. He’s on pace for less than 560 this season, which would be a huge help for the playoffs as the 38-year-old prepares for another postseason.
The Saints defense doesn’t necessarily stand out, with 5.4 yards per play allowed, but given what we’ve seen in past seasons, that represents an enormous adjustment. The health of Marshon Lattimore is a big deal going forward and he is very questionable on the short week after missing last week’s game. That is where the Saints have improved dramatically. The secondary rates a little bit better than average with 5.7 adjusted net yards per pass attempt and has kept the opposition to just a 61.1 percent completion percentage. Youngsters like Lattimore, Kenny Vaccaro, and Vonn Bell have transformed this defense. AJ Klein gave the Saints the defensive captain that they have been lacking. All you need is an average defense with an offense like this and this defense has been every bit of that and then some.
The Falcons are a really hard team to peg this season. The offense is still north of six yards per play, but there simply doesn’t seem to be as much continuity or rhythm. Matt Ryan hasn’t appeared comfortable with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian throughout the year. After a career year last season with a 38/7 TD/INT ratio and a 69.9 percent completion percentage, Ryan has a 16/8 TD/INT ratio with a 66.7 percent completion rate. He has his lowest yards per game mark since 2010. The Falcons have relied on the run a little bit more under Sarkisian and have had some success with 4.4 yards per carry, but this just doesn’t feel like the same group. Julio Jones has another 1,000-yard season, but has only hauled in 68 of his 107 targets. Last year he caught 83 of 129 in 14 games and the year before that he caught 136 out of 203.
The Atlanta defense is just inside the top 10 in yards per play allowed, tied with Tennessee for eighth. Marquand Manuel has done a pretty decent job with this group and the presence of Dan Quinn doesn’t hurt. As good as the base defense has played, however, the Falcons have only forced 10 turnovers. Only the Raiders have fewer takeaways. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense to hold strong throughout the game and also on the offense to complete drives on long fields. The Falcons only have three interceptions this season. Only Oakland has fewer picks with one and nobody else has fewer than five. The Falcons seem unlikely to force many turnovers this week against the Saints.
Free NFL Pick: Atlanta Falcons PK
This is truly a coin flip game. The Falcons get a little bit of a bump for home field, especially on the short week, so we saw the Falcons open a home favorite. The line movement on the Saints is correct in that they’d be a road favorite without question. The quick turnaround and the short travel may be a little bit detrimental for the Saints here. Both teams are pretty similar from a per play standpoint, but the Saints have been a bit more efficient on offense. The Falcons have been more efficient on defense. In a short week, I’ll take the slightly better defense, but there are going to be better options the rest of the week in the NFL.