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Falcons vs. Saints: Atlanta's receivers can set the tone early; four things to know

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's been just two weeks since the Falcons and the Saints played for the first time this season, and the quick turnaround has seemingly added to the fanfare surrounding this pivotal NFC South matchup.


Of course, with only two games remaining in the regular season, the playoff picture has become much clearer. Whichever team emerges victoriously on Sunday will clinch a spot in the postseason and remain in position to win the NFC South. If the Falcons win their next two games, against the Saints (10-4) and the Panthers (10-4), they will repeat as division champions. The Saints can clinch the division with a win and a Panthers loss on Sunday or by winning their next two games.

With so much on the line in the latest iteration of one of the league's best rivalries, let's dive into this week's key matchup.

KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' receivers vs. Saints' defensive backs

Possibly the biggest matchup in this game will be Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara out in space against the Falcons' linebackers and defensive backs. We touched on that already in our preview of the first game between these two teams, however, so we'll go in a different direction this time. If you want to read about that matchup, click here.

The other big matchup to keep an eye on will be the Falcons' receivers against the Saints' defensive backs and safeties.

Matt Ryan didn't have his best game against the Saints in Week 14, completing 15 of his 27 pass attempts for 221 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. It was the least amount of yards he's thrown against the Saints since 2012 and tied his career-low in completions against the Saints. He'll have to be better on Sunday, but his receivers can give him help early on.

New Orleans primarily played Atlanta in man coverage early on in their first meeting. Against this look, the Falcons had some success throwing the ball. In the first half, the Falcons gained 132 yards through the air and hit three passes of over 20 yards.

After giving up some big plays against the pass, the Saints began to play a few more two-high safety looks with zone coverage. Against these defensive looks, the Falcons ran the ball effectively. Atlanta gained just 45 rushing yards in the first half against New Orleans and nearly doubled that amount in the second half, gaining 87 yards on the ground in the final two quarters.

Following Devonta Freeman's impressive 126-yard performance against the Buccaneers, it's likely the Saints' defense begins Sunday's game the same way it did the first time these teams played, with a safety in the box. By winning on the outside against man coverage, the Falcons' receivers can force the Saints to bring a safety back deep and create the type of offensive balance that makes Atlanta so dangerous.

That's easier said than done, however, as the Saints' cornerbacks held their own against the Falcons' receivers, aside from a few big plays. Rookie Marshon Lattimore showed why the Saints are so high on him, and he left a strong impression on Julio Jones.

"He's a great competitor," Jones said of Lattimore. "He travels, that's what I love about him. He travels with all of the top receivers."

Four more things to know about Falcons-Saints 1. Saints will be missing a pair of starters on defense

Starting linebacker A.J. Klein was among the Saints players knocked out of the first game against the Falcons, and he was recently placed on injured reserve after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. One of the leaders on the defense, Klein is a versatile player who had 54 tackles, six tackles for a loss, four pass defenses and two sacks. He will be replaced by Manti Te'o, who led the Saints with 10 tackles and two tackles for a loss in the first game against the Falcons.

The other player who is headed to IR is safety Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro has been playing through both a groin and wrist injury and will undergo surgery to repair both. In his place, the Saints are expected to rely on second-year safety Vonn Bell, who leads the team with 65 tackles and has 3.5 sacks. 2. Falcons could get a pair of key offensive pieces back

Andy Levitre, the Falcons' starting left guard, has been sidelined for the past two games against the Saints and the Bucs, but he has been practicing this week and signs point to him getting back for Sunday's game. The other offensive player who could make his return this weekend is running back Tevin Coleman, who suffered a concussion near the end of the Saints game. Falcons coach Dan Quinn announced Wednesday that Coleman has progressed fully through the concussion protocol and has returned to practice full time. 3. Six Saints players named to Pro Bowl

New Orleans' season has been a relative surprise, and the Saints have been rewarded for their success by the Pro Bowl voters. Six Saints players were honored with a spot in the Pro Bowl, tying the Eagles for the most in the NFC and behind only the Steelers, who placed eight players in the game.

Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore were two of the four NFL rookies voted to the Pro Bowl, and they will join teammates Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, Cam Jordan and Michael Thomas at the all-star game. 4. Shades of 1978?

Only 17 days separate the first meeting between the Falcons and Saints this season and the second on Sunday night. In this rivalry, there has been only one year in which the two teams have played twice in a shorter amount of time – 1978, when they played both games in the span of 14 days. That year is one of the most memorable ones in this rivalry, and it bears a few interesting similarities with how this season is shaping up.

The first meeting between the Falcons and Saints in 1978 came down to the wire in New Orleans. With just 19 seconds left, Steve Bartkowski called "Big Ben Right" and tossed a Hail Mary into the end zone, which landed in the hands of receiver Alfred Jackson after getting batted around. The touchdown gave Atlanta a thrilling 20-17 win.

Sound familiar, Falcons fans?

In the second game, the Falcons again trailed 17-13 with less than a minute on the clock. Bartkowski engineered a 72-yard drive in 48 seconds to score the winning touchdown with just five seconds left. Once again, the Falcons earned a 20-17 win in thrilling fashion. That season, Atlanta finished 9-7 and earned its first wild-card berth in franchise history. New Orleans, meanwhile, finished at 7-9 and missed the postseason. Those two games swung the seasons of both the Falcons and Saints.

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