Before the start of the 2013 season, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were expected to compete for first place in the NFC South, and possibly a spot in the Super Bowl. However, only one of the two teams remains in contention as they go head-to-head in the first game of Week 12.
On "Thursday Night Football," the Falcons host the Saints with not much to play for. Atlanta enters the contest at 2-8 and with the worst record in the conference. The team that reached the NFC Championship Game last season and signed their franchise quarterback to a nine-figure contract in the summer is currently in a freefall and headed for a pick at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft. At this point, the only thing the Falcons have to look forward to is playing the role of spoiler.
"Clearly, we're 10 games into this thing and certainly far, far away from where we want to be," Matt Ryan said. "We've got six games to go. It's about going out there and taking pride in what you do."
New Orleans, on the other hand, is one of the best teams in the league. Only the one-loss Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have better championship odds, and they’re aiming to get the No.1 seed in the NFC. The Saints have a one-game lead in the division over the surging Carolina Panthers. A win is important for them to stave off a team that hasn’t lost since Week Five.
It’s the second matchup between the two teams this year. New Orleans hosted the Week One opener against Atlanta, and despite the Falcons’ struggles, they almost gave the Saints their lone home loss of 2013. New Orleans won 23-17, barely holding off their opponent on a drive in the final minute. The Falcons had a first down at the Saints’ seven-yard line, but a Matt Ryan interception ended the game.
The pick has been indicative of much of Ryan’s season. He’s disappointed after becoming one of the richest quarterbacks in the offseason. The 28-year-old put up big numbers in the first few weeks, but has played poorly in Atlanta’s four-game losing streak. During that time, he’s thrown five touchdowns and nine interceptions, failing to register a passer rating of 85.0 in any game.
Ryan and the rest of the offense have been severely hampered by injuries. Wide receiver Julio Jones is out for the year, while hamstring and ankle injuries have plagued Roddy White for most of the season. Steven Jackson was a model of consistency with the St. Louis Rams, rushing for at least 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons. In his first year with the Falcons, however, the veteran has missed four games and picked up just 192 yards on the ground.
The Saints are dealing with a major injury of their own. Cornerback Jabari Greer had to be carted off the field against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday because of a torn ACL. He’s been placed on IR and will miss the rest of the season.
"Jabari has been great this year," said defensive end Cameron Jordan. "He's played up to what he did in previous years and was playing at a very high level. So for him to go down like that, you have to rely on the coaching staff and staff that has picked players for our team just to know that this is next man up.”
Away from home, New Orleans has not been as dominant this season. Both of their losses have come away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and none of their road victories have come by more than one score. Atlanta, though, hasn’t been competitive of late, losing their last four by an average of 18.5 points per game. That’s caused Las Vegas odds-makers to set the betting line at eight points, in favor of the Saints. Atlanta hasn’t covered a point spread since Week Seven.
Betting Odds: New Orleans -8, 53
Prediction: New Orleans 34, Atlanta 20