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Five things to watch when Falcons host rival New Orleans Saints at home in Week 12 clash

Desmond Ridder returns to QB1 status. What differences could be seen from the young quarterback after two games on the sideline? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Yes, the Falcons have lost four of their last five games. Yes, they're going back to Desmond Ridder as the starting quarterback. Yes, the Falcons are coming off their Week 11 bye at 4-6.

No, the Falcons are not out of contention in the NFC South.

Despite a lackluster month of November in terms of wins, personnel questions and limited production when it mattered most, the Falcons still have everything they want in front of them. Hope is far from being lost, but that hope only shines brighter in the midst of the last month if the Falcons come away with a win on Sunday.

That win would have to come against long-time rivals the New Orleans Saints as the Falcons divisional foe travels up to Atlanta for a 1 p.m. ET kick at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Let's take a look at your five things to watch when said kickoff happens.


1. Injuries shake up starting lineup for one team

This section is less about the Falcons and more about the Saints. Atlanta came out of their bye week with more players than not back on the mend. Atlanta will see the return of DL David Onyemata and DB Dee Alford to their defensive lineup after missing both players with ankle injuries in Arizona two weeks ago, before a bye. Their presence helps solidify this defense.

The Falcons also received some good news about kicker Younghoe Koo on Friday, too. After working through a back injury this week, he was cleared to play and can suit up for the Falcons in a game that may come down to a kick (as it has before in the history of these two teams). The only notable absence for the Falcons is receiver Mack Hollins, who has a lingering ankle injury. Other than that, the Falcons are sitting in a pretty good spot health-wise with the only question being that of backup QB Taylor Heinicke.

Meanwhile, New Orleans has also been working through a bout of injuries. Their prognosis is a bit different, though.

Most notably is the progression of QB Derek Carr who has spent the week working through the NFL's concussion protocol. Carr ultimately cleared said protocol and has been given the green light to play in Atlanta this weekend. Asked about the Saints plans for the quarterback position earlier in the week, head coach Arthur Smith said it just adds another wrinkle to the preparation for both teams since the organizations have had two weeks to study up on their opponent. (New Orleans is also coming off of their bye week).

Despite New Orleans getting good news about Carr, the Saints had to make some tough decisions on two well-known names. They placed WR Michael Thomas on injured reserve. Meanwhile, CB Marshon Lattimore has not participated in practice this week. He has an ankle injury and was ruled out of Sunday's game

2. Desmond Ridder back as QB1

After two-plus games on the sideline, Ridder returns to his starting role as the Falcons quarterback. Taylor Heinicke had held onto QB1 status since coming in for Ridder in the second half of the Falcons' loss to the Titans in Week 8. Roles reversed in the final quarter of the Falcons' loss to the Cardinals in Week 10, though, with Ridder coming in for an injured Heinicke.

Since making the initial switch at quarterback, Smith said the Falcons would use the bye week to reevaluate the quarterback position in Atlanta. Ultimately, they made the decision to give the reins back to Ridder.

"He has taken advantage of what can be perceived as a major negative," Smith said Monday, "and tried to turn it into a positive for not just the short-term, but for the rest of his career."

As Amna Subhan wrote, the situation Ridder is stepping into this week draws comparisons to a similar situation last year, when Ridder was named the starting quarterback coming out of the bye week only to face the Saints in his first game. Asked about this, Ridder said the situation feels very different for him this time around.

"Last year was the first game, going down there, no clue (how) NFL ball was going to treat me," Ridder said. "Now (I've) got my toes in the water, been around a block or two. Now, it's just exciting. (I'm) ready to get back out there, to have the opportunity to be back out there, just going to take full advantage of it."

What that looks like and how different things can be for this offense with Ridder at the helm will be tested this Sunday.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder #9 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Monday, November 20, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

3. Old friend becomes new foe

For the first time since joining the Falcons this offseason, linebacker Kaden Elliss, defensive lineman David Onyemata and defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen will face their old team.

Asked what the experience will be like, Elliss said it'll be like "blood in the water," with the Falcons excited to face the rival. Meanwhile in New Orleans, RB Alvin Kamara was asked about facing Nielsen's defensive scheme. He said plainly that he doesn't "give a damn."

The rivalry between the Falcons and Saints runs deep. Perhaps this year, with three of their own on the opposing sideline, it means just a little bit more for both teams. Time will tell what kind of impact this new wrinkle brings to the rivalry.

4. Extending Bijan Robinson's role in the offense

Robinson -- and his usage -- has been a major topic of conversation in Atlanta for the last few weeks. Robinson headlined this week's Nerdy Birds report, with Matt Haley and John Deighton providing a plethora of statistical advantages when the Falcons use Robinson.

Simultaneously, Scott Bair wrote about Robinson and what Smith said about the rookie running back this week. Asked if Robinson's season-high carries against the Cardinals last week was a sign of his expanding role, Smith said Robinson is always a major part of any game plan the Falcons put together.

"He's exceeded our expectations," Smith said of Robinson, who has averaged 4.9 yards per carry through his first 10 NFL games. "... Like all of us, (he) would love to be undefeated, would love to score 500 touchdowns, but he's a guy that continues to work. He understands (that), too. ... However it divvies out, he's going to have a huge role in our game plan."

Smith continued by saying he has been pleased with the fact that he hasn't seen Robinson hit a wall, or the "rookie fatigue," as he named it. The key, Smith said, is for the Falcons to continue to evolve in their usage of Robinson.

"Go back to the Green Bay game, it's like, 'Hey, are you using him too much? This pace isn't sustainable.' Then, things happen. So, as you're going through it, and people may have seen what he's doing, and they may focus on him more and try to take him away," Smith said. "And maybe, the way you're using him early in the season somewhat ends, so you have to adapt and what not. ... There are a lot of reasons, but he's a huge part of the game plan.

"To me, it's what he can handle. And you try not to do too much to overload one player, but he's very unique, in that regard, for a young player."

5. Battle for the top spot

The prevailing theme of the week in Flowery Branch as the Falcons prepare to face the Saints is that everything the Falcons want is still ahead of them. Despite the fact the Falcons have been on a slide in the last month, the NFC South is still a wide-open contest.

One game separates first and third place in the division. The Saints are 5-5. The Falcons are 4-6. The Falcons, though, have two divisional wins already, having defeated Tampa Bay and Carolina before the bye week. With a win on Sunday, they would remain undefeated in the division and would move into first place, tied at the top.

This season is far from over, and it really could come down to every divisional game acting with the value of two wins to one. If the Falcons win out in the division, losses to Tennessee, Washington and Arizona don't pack as significant of a punch. But only if the Falcons win, starting this Sunday.

"We have everything in front of us. We still have the division in front of us," Ridder said. "We have everything we want to get in front of us."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the New Orleans Saints, presented by Fast Twitch.

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