Friday, December 11, 2009

Week 14: Two Kinds of Desperate

The New Orleans Saints travel to the unfriendly confines of the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon to take on the franchise’s primary historic rival Atlanta Falcons while keeping an eye on the Minnesota Vikings, their current rival for homefield advantage in the playoffs.

A Saints victory against the Falcons would assure the Black and Gold a first-round bye. Victories against the Falcons and next Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Network showdown in the Superdome combined with a Vikings loss would give the Black and Gold their first full homefield advantage in post-season (though the Saints had a first-round bye in 2006, the Chicago Bears had the overall homefield advantage, which proved to be significant in ending the Saints’ Super Bowl run).

Though the Saints have on paper a two game lead over the Vikings, a WWL radio commentator best described it as being a 1.5 game edge due to Minnesota being assured of having the tie-breaker via conference record since any Saints loss now to the end of the season would be against NFC rivals while one of the Vikings’ two losses was against an AFC (Pittsburgh Steelers) squad.

With homefield advantage and the prospect of joining two (perhaps three if the Colts continue their winning ways) NFL teams as having won every single regular season game weighing heavily on the team’s agenda, the Saints cannot afford to take any opponent lightly, with their overtime escape from Landover, MD showing that even a team with a poor record is capable of putting up a hell of a fight.

A loss to the Falcons would not only end the Saints’ unprecedented wining streak but drop their lead over the Vikings to a half-game for homefield advantage. And while the Vikings play in a dome, thus negating the natural elements that confounded the Saints on a bitter, snowy day at Soldier Field in early 2007, the team would obviously prefer to have the 12th man working for them and not against them.

The Saints will be taking on a desperate team on Sunday. At 6-6, the Falcons are a longshot to make it into post-season but there is something else driving the Atlanta fan base: the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons. While this might seem like a trifling goal even to Saints fans (Coach Jim Mora’s 1987 and 1988 teams accomplished this feat), the fans in the ATL are anxious to remove this hex from their house.

And Saints fans can empathize with the Falcon flock as they were tormented by their franchise’s total lack of success in post-season play until Coach Jim Haslett’s team exorcised that demon in 2000.

A loss to the Saints would force the Dirty Birds to run the table to end up 9-7. The Falcons travel to New Jersey to face the Jets the following week before retuning home to take on the Buffalo Bills and then closing the season out in Tampa Bay, that being the most probable victory on their schedule.

The Match-Up

The Saints, with their battered, bruised and out starting cornerbacks, will be against a team that has suffered even more from the injury bug.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who has dealing with turf toe, did not practice on Thursday and will be a game-time decision. My gut tells me that “Matty Ice” is unlikely to play in order to avoid further aggravating his injury against the toughest team left on their schedule. Even if Ryan does play, he won’t be at the top of his game, potentially allowing the Saints’ defense to look good after not looking so well in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’s homecoming in Washington last Sunday.

Running back Michael Turner has an injured ankle and also sat out practice on Thursday, though like Ryan, if he does play, Turner will not be at the same level he was when he ran for 151 yards against the Saints on Monday Night Football.

The Saints are not the picture of health either, though their key playmakers on the offensive side of the ball should be on field. Saints lost a valuable backup when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar was put on injured reserve after getting hurt against the Redskins on Sunday. Linebacker Scott Fujita is struggled with a knee injury that required surgery over the weekend and is out for Atlanta. Linebacker Marvin Mitchell is also not expected to play on Sunday. With the linebacker corps thinning out, the team signed linebacker Anthony Waters, who played in preseason games for the Black and Gold and just missed making the regular season roster.

The good news is that the Saints may get back wide receiver Lance Moore, a favorite target of Brees and considered to have one of the best set of hands on the team. Moore was limited in practice.

The Oddsmaker’s Take

Danny Sheridan of USA Today has the Saints as a 10.5 point favorite, an increase of a point earlier in the week and a reflection of the belief that Ryan and Turner will likely be either scratches or simply not contributing as much as they would if healthy.

With the Saints’ top three cornerbacks injured and the team missing a starting linebacker (Fujita) and two reserves (Dubar and Mitchell), the Falcons offense could have terrorized the Black and Gold on the ground and in the air. Minus their two best offensive weapons, the Falcons’ offense is going to struggle staying on the field too long even against the Saints’ patchwork defense.

The longer Brees and Co. keeps the Falcons’ defense on the field, the worst it will get for the Dirty Birds.

The Falcons offense is ranked 10th in points scored at 23.2 and the defense is ranked 23rd in points allowed with 23.2. The Falcons net points for the season at this juncture is 0.
The Falcons ranked 29th in pass defense and are marginally better on the ground, ranking 23rd in stopping the run.

Though the Saints’ offense had trouble containing the lackluster Redskins’ offense, the Falcons are hurting across the board.

While I felt a lot better about 9.5, I am less inclined to give the 10.5 after Washington. However, the Saints survived that game playing on a bad field, in a short week and in adverse weather conditions (hardly the Bucs game from last season). Also keep in mind that the Georgia Dome will be well-stocked with Saints fans making the journey to Atlanta, chipping away at the Dirty Birds’ homefield advantage. Tickets in the nosebleed sections of the Goeriga Dome that have a face-value of $25 are going in excess of $100 and it’s unlikely that local Falcons fans are driving up the price for tickets on the resale market.

With the Saints offense largely intact, the Atlanta offense less so and the Saints “big-play” defense pickup turnovers, the game could be a route. If I was laying down some green, I’d give the 10.5.

One Last Observation from the Redskins “Upset”

The same Washington Redskins team that came the closest thus far to defeating the Saints were also the first team to lose to the Detroit Lions, a squad that had not won a game since the 2007 season.

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