The Falcons shocked the NFL when they rolled into New Orleans and smoked the Saints 26-9 back in Week 10. Now, the Saints are headed to Atlanta looking to exact some payback in front of a national audience on Thanksgiving night.
Short weeks are part of life in the NFL, as each team must play one game on Thursday night, and the Falcons and Saints are experiencing the challenges that accompany the rushed week of preparation.
“I think always it’s the recovery element,” Payton said. “Being able to put in your plan, most of it is done via walkthrough, and then really you’re at a race to recover from last weekend’s game.”
Both teams are nursing injuries ahead of the Thursday-night clash. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones missed Tuesday’s practice due to a shoulder injury and tight end Austin Hooper has been out the last two games since sustaining a knee injury in the first Saints game. New Orleans, meanwhile, is banged up along the offensive line. Tackle Terron Armstead and guard Andrus Peat both missed Tuesday’s practice due to an ankle and forearm injury, respectively.
It helps that there is plenty of familiarity between these two teams. With a foundation of knowledge, especially where personnel is concerned, already in place, the Falcons and Saints can primarily focus on making tweaks to their scheme and getting their players ready for Thursday.
“I think the benefit for both teams is knowing the personnel,” Payton said. “Knowing the scheme, because they’re a division opponent. It’s different than if you’re playing an AFC team that you’re trying to catch up on. Now, there’s always wrinkles relative to what teams want to do, but I think in the division you’re a little bit more familiar with the opponent.”
The Saints will likely be looking to make plenty of adjustments to their game plan after their first meeting with the Falcons.
New Orleans boasts the fourth-best run defense in the league, allowing 88.5 yards per game, but Atlanta ran the ball for a season-high 143 yards in its win just a few weeks ago. The Falcons also dominated time of possession, controlling the ball for 33:46, which is also an outlier for the Saints, whose average time of possession is 32:33, the third-most in the NFL.
Week 10 also marked a high point for the Falcons’ pass rush, which sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees six times. New Orleans has given up just 21 sacks all season long, and the Saints know how important it will be to keep Brees upright.
“They ran it well,” Payton said of the Falcons’ performance in the first game. “Time of possession was in their favor, their third-down numbers were in their favor. Every key component to winning games. The only thing that tilted in our favor was we had one takeaway and still lost the game. Atlanta did so many things well in that game and we didn’t do well enough.”
The Saints have been running the ball well of late, topping 100 yards on the ground in each of their last two games. Atlanta forced New Orleans to become one-dimensional in the team’s first meeting by controlling the clock and building a lead. That strategy resulted in the Saints running the ball just 11 times for 52 yards, their lowest total this season.
With starter Alvin Kamara getting healthier each week and backup Latavius Murray looking sharp in Week 12 against the Panthers, the Saints’ run game is rounding into form. Kamara has carried the ball 24 times for 129 yards in the last two weeks, while Murray has 17 carries for 91 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown run.
The Saints beat the Falcons 31-17 on Thanksgiving night last season, and they earned a 43-37 overtime win the last time they played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta did earn a thrilling 20-17 win against New Orleans on Thursday night in 2017, courtesy of Deion Jones’ late interception in the end zone.
Given the way this rivalry often shakes out, more thrills could be in store.
“Regardless of how the teams have been throughout the years it always seems to come down to a close finish,” Payton said.