FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Saints have a bit to play for on Sunday. The Falcons? Not so much.
Regardless of the outcome, Atlanta's 2021 season ends on Sunday. However, there may be more for the Falcons to play for than you think. The Falcons could end the season on a high note by knocking the Saints out of playoff contention, keeping them below a .500 record, thus sweeping them in 2021 in the process. Or the result could be the opposite, with the Falcons dropping to 7-10 on the season and remaining in third place in the division.
This can go one of two ways for the Falcons. So, as we wait for kickoff, let's take a look at the biggest storylines of this game.
1. Can Kyle Pitts get the green light?
After breaking franchise records with a 61-yard catch in Buffalo last Sunday, the Falcons were without their rookie tight end throughout much of the second half against the Bills. Pitts suffered a hamstring injury right before the half. He tried to play in the second half but the injury compounded with the cold and snowy climate kept him off the field.
Pitts did not participate in practice on Wednesday but was upgraded to limited on Thursday and Friday. He told reporters on Thursday that the hamstring was feeling "good." When asked if he thought he'd be ready to play in the Falcons final game against the Saints on Sunday, Pitts said yes. On Friday, the Falcons listed Pitts as questionable for Sunday's game, with Arthur Smith saying they'll make a decision on Pitts (and others) on Saturday.
If Pitts can't get the hamstring to 100 percent, the Falcons won't be as thin in the tight end room as they were in Buffalo. Hayden Hurst returned this week from a quick stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Falcons signed Parker Hesse to the active roster earlier in the week, and they've still got Lee Smith ready to go, too. Pitts would still be missed offensively - no question - but the blow wouldn't be as significant as it was in Buffalo.
2. Potential offensive line shuffle
Jalen Mayfield has not participated in practice since Wednesday. The Falcons rookie left guard is dealing with a back injury. Like Pitts, Mayfield was listed as questionable on Friday. However, the difference between the two rookies' statuses being Pitts looked to be trending in a positive direction. Without two days of practice, there's little known about which way Mayfield is trending.
If Mayfield can't play on Sunday, the Falcons have options to replace him. Listed on the team's official depth chart as the Falcons backup left guard is Josh Andrews. It worth noting that Atlanta has kept Andrews inactive for weeks. Another option could be Colby Gossett or Drew Dalman. Both could slot in if need be.
3. Limiting the Taysom Hill attack
The last time the Falcons faced the Saints, Jameis Winston had just received a season-ending injury diagnosis and Hill was recently coming off his own injury. At the time, the Saints looked to Trevor Siemian to lead their offense. The same can't be said for this upcoming game as Hill has been the starter for New Orleans throughout the last four games.
Atlanta hasn't been able to crack the Hill code yet. In 2020, the Falcons went 0-2 against the Saints with Hill as the starter. In those two games, Hill ran for 132 yards on 24 carries. That's good enough for a 5.5 yards per carry average.
A weakness of this Falcons defense all year has been in its inability to stop a running quarterback. Just last week against Buffalo, Josh Allen ran the ball 15 times for 81 yards. In total, the Falcons have given up 413 rushing yards to quarterbacks this year. That's the third-most rushing yards allowed from the position in the league.
Hill exposes a Falcons weakness. He's the final test they'll face this season.
4. Can the Falcons be self-motivated?
The Saints are playing for something tangible on Sunday. With a win, they'd move above .500 on the year. They'd be right in the playoff conversation, too. The Falcons, on the other hand, are not. What they're playing for is pride.
When asked if this is motivation enough, Arthur Smith said it better be.
"If we don't, we've got the wrong people," Smith said. "... We would think we had the wrong guys if we had to sit there and trick them and motivate them. That's absurd. That's nobody that we want here."
So, if Smith has anything to say about it, the Falcons will be ready even without postseason implications on the line.
5. Make sure to keep an eye on other games across the league, too
The Falcons game with the Saints dictates quite a bit in regards to Atlanta's future 2022 draft pick and opponents, but so does games happening elsewhere, too.
First up, there's the 2022 opponents to square away.
As Scott Bair laid out, this divisional rivalry will determine if the Falcons or Saints finish in second or third place in the division. According to where they fall, their 2022 opponents will be dictated not just by their finishing rank but those across the league as well.
For example, if the Falcons finish second in the NFC South, they would play the second-place teams in the NFC North and AFC West at home and the second-place NFC East team on the road in 2022.
As for the Falcons 2022 first round Draft pick? That's a bit more convoluted as games across the league heavily dictate Atlanta's final draft spot.
As of right now, the Falcons hold the No. 10 pick. However, that could fluctuate anywhere between the No. 7 and No. 14 pick once all is said and done on Sunday.
Keep all of this in mind as you watch not just the Falcons and Saints on Sunday, but other teams across the league, too.
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.