Throughout their recent history, the rivalry between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints has been one of the most competitive in the NFL.
The Falcons are 8-14 against the Saints since 2008, the year Matt Ryan was drafted, but 12 of those 22 games have been decided by one possession, including six where a single field goal made the difference.
Although the two team's season trajectories have been headed in the opposite direction in 2019, it's no surprise, given the history, that Saints coach Sean Payton expects another tightly contested game.
"If you just go back through the history of this matchup, regardless of records, it's always been a one-possession game or a score game, overtime or a field-goal game, and I'm expecting the same thing this weekend," Payton said.
While most often associated with offense, the Saints boast one of the league's top defenses this season. New Orleans is limiting its opponents to 316.5 yards per game, the fifth-best mark in the NFL, and just 84.3 yards per game on the ground, which is the fourth-fewest. The Saints are 16th in passing yards allowed this season, surrendering 232.3 yards per game, but that number is likely inflated given that their opponents are often playing from behind.
Still, the Saints pass defense will be tested on Sunday by a Falcons offense that leads the NFL with 316.8 yards per game through the air.
"They're explosive," Payton said of Atlanta's offense. "We feel like we know this team just like they know us well. The receivers, obviously, have done a great job. Matt is an outstanding player. Just from watching the film, they're leading the league in pass offense. At times they've been behind, so they're throwing more."
Defensively, the Falcons (1-7) will have to contend with a Saints offense that is exceptionally balanced. New Orleans ranks in the top half of the league in total offense, rushing yards per game and passing yards per game. Most notably, the Saints (7-1) are also the third-best team in time of possession.
In order to reverse that particular trend, the Falcons will likely have to force some turnovers, which hasn't been their strong suit. Atlanta has forced just four takeaways, which is tied with Miami for the least in the NFL through the first nine weeks. Conversely, the Saints have been the second-best team in the league at protecting the ball and have turned it over just six times.
"In our league the giveaway and takeaway numbers are so important," Payton said. "With only 11 or 12 possessions a game, I'm sure that's the one thing that Dan and those guys will be working on – trying to create more and also protect the ball more."