In an NFC South matchup with heavy playoff implications, the New Orleans Saints (10-4) host the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) in week 16. New Orleans currently sits atop the division with a head-to-head tiebreaker over the second place Carolina Panthers (10-4), and is a game ahead of the third-place Falcons. The winner of this game will earn a playoff berth, and the Saints can clinch the division with a win and a Carolina loss.
This figures to be one of the more heated matchups between these teams in recent history. Aside from the opportunity to book a trip to the postseason, there’s still some bad blood lingering from the week 14 dogfight between the Saints and Falcons. There was a choking gesture by Saints head coach Sean Payton directed at Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, along with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Payton that ended the game.
After the game, it was revealed that one of the referees was a former Falcons player. This caused an uproar among Saints fans who felt this was a conflict of interest that contributed to the 11 penalties called on their team that night. Payton complained about the officiating as well, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn had some choice words for Payton’s gripes this week.
With so much fuel on the fire and so much on the line, this is a must-watch game for any football fan.
Week 16 New Orleans Saints Keys to Victory
Alvin Kamara’s Revenge
In the week 14 matchup, Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara left with a concussion on the opening possession. Prior to the injury, he appeared to be a big part of the Saints gameplan with four touches and 27 yards on that drive. From that point on, New Orleans lacked explosiveness on offense and struggled to keep drives alive.
Kamara’s outstanding season earned him a Pro Bowl selection earlier this week. On the season, Kamara has 1,336 yards from scrimmage and averages eight yards per touch. He’s only the third running back in NFL history to record at least 600 yards rushing and receiving as a rookie. Kamara also boasts a league-best 6.6 yards per carry.
Expect the Saints to feature their most dangerous weapon this week, and attempt to execute the gameplan that they had to abandon two weeks ago.
Neutralize Atlanta’s Pass Rush
One of the strengths of Atlanta’s ninth-ranked defense is their pass rush. They have 36 sacks on the season, which ranks tenth in the NFL. The Falcons pass rush is so difficult to contain because they have multiple quality edge rushers. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn has 9.5 sacks on the season, rookie linebacker Takkarist McKinley has six, and three other players have at least three sacks.
Atlanta sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees only twice in week 14, but both sacks came on third down plays in the second half. These clutch defensive plays helped Atlanta overcome a 17-10 Saints lead and win the game.
Luckily the Saints offensive line should be somewhat healthier this time around. Left guard Andrus Peat did not play in week 14, and his backup Senio Kelemete was injured early in the game. Both are expected to play. However, right guard Larry Warford‘s status is in question after suffering a concussion last week.
Contain Devonta Freeman
Falcons quarterback and 2016 MVP Matt Ryan isn’t having his best season. His 92.0 passer rating is 25 points lower than where it was last year, and he has 18 touchdowns coupled with 11 interceptions on the season. In the last three games, Ryan has two touchdowns, three interceptions, and 202 passing yards per game in that span.
While the Falcons passing game should never be underestimated with Ryan under center, along with wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, Freeman has carried Atlanta’s offense recently. Freeman has 291 rushing yards while averaging 5.01 yards per carry in the last three games to make up for Atlanta’s struggles through the air. In week 14, Freeman’s 92 yards on 24 carries helped the Falcons control the clock against the Saints.
New Orleans will have to find a way to slow down Freeman despite suffering multiple injuries to their defensive front in recent weeks.