By Kevin McGuire
Rivals collide in a key division showdown in the NFC South on Thursday night. The division-leading New Orleans Saints (9-3) host Matt Ryan and the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons (7-5), with both teams looking to make a final push toward the postseason. The hostility between these two teams will not be tied down this week with the stakes growing higher and higher in the competitive NFC playoff picture.
When They Last Met
This will be the first meeting of the 2017 season between the Falcons and Saints. The last time they played was on Jan. 1 in the regular season finale of the 2016 season, with the Falcons ending the year with a 38-33 victory on their way to an NFC championship run. The Falcons won both games in the season series in 2016. The Saints won the 2015 season finale in Atlanta, completing a season sweep.
The Saints are coming off a 31-21 win against the Carolina Panthers to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South. The Falcons could not get the offense going against the Minnesota Vikings and were defeated at home, 14-9. The Falcons are 3-3 in their brand new football stadium.
Red-Hot Saints Continue Marching
The Saints opened the season with back-to-back double-digit losses against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots. From there, the Saints hit the reset button on the season and ripped off eight straight wins before suffering their next loss. With veteran Drew Brees leading the passing game and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram powering the run game, the Saints have taken control in the division with just a few more games to be played.
Boom and Zoom
Ingram and Kamara have been working well, splitting the rushing responsibilities in the New Orleans backfield. Kamara has been a pleasant surprise for the Saints, who drafted him in the third round. Saints coach Sean Payton said earlier this week that New Orleans may have even thought about drafting Kamara earlier if they had known how good he would be.
No more time to worry about a Super Bowl hangover
The Falcons have struggled to put to rest any idea they are suffering the so-called Super Bowl hangover after losing the big game last season. At 7-5, the Falcons are fighting just to get back into the postseason. With four division games left on the schedule, the Falcons will be in for some good competition down the stretch.
NFC Playoff Picture
No matter what happens in the Thursday night game, the Saints will still be in position for a playoff spot as the top team in the division. The Falcons, however, are more in need of picking up a win. Coming into the game, the Falcons are one spot out of the second Wild Card position in the NFC playoff picture, which is currently held by another NFC South team, the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons trail the Panthers by one game. A win by the Saints would make them the third team in the conference with 10 wins, joining the Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles.