By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
The New Orleans Saints will be seeking their 2nd consecutive win of the 2018 Regular Season this coming Sunday when they travel to the great state of Georgia to face their hated and despised arch-rivals the Falcons; in a key early-season NFC South Divisional match-up for both teams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
The Saints (1-1) are coming off a narrow 21-18 win over the lowly Cleveland Browns; while the Falcons (1-1) will also be trying to win their 2nd straight contest after defeating the Carolina Panthers at home by a score of 31-24.
With that in mind, here are Big Easy Magazine’s 5 “bold” predictions for this pivotal early-season divisional contest which potentially could impact the NFC Playoff race later on at the end of the year.
And we’ll start at #5, and work our way down to #1.
Starting with this one…..
#5. MICHAEL THOMAS CONTINUES HIS “RED HOT” START TO THE SEASON WITH ANOTHER DOUBLE-DIGIT CATCH PERFORMANCE
So just how good is Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas now as he plays in his 3rd NFL season?
After the first 2 games thus far, the 25-year old Thomas has been virtually “on fire”, setting a NFL record with 28 catches through the first two weeks of this season — including two touchdowns in the 4th quarter of last Sunday’s come-from-behind 21-18 win over Cleveland.
Thomas’s 28 catches through the first two games of the season are the most in NFL history, breaking the previous mark of 26, set by Andre Rison with the Falcons back in 1994. Thomas set a franchise record with 16 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown in a 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay back in Week #1. He followed up that performance by catching an additional caught 12 passes for 89 yards against the Browns.
This Sunday, Thomas will look to continue his red-hot start to the season as he faces off one-on-one with Falcons CB Desmond Trufant, who although talented will still have a hard time stopping the young man that has slowly become one of the NFL’s truly “elite” WR’s.
Thomas will once again record double-digit catches (13) along with 146 receiving yards and another red-zone score for a TD, to lead an efficient Saints receiving game against a banged-up Atlanta defense. Speaking of that banged-up Atlanta defense, that takes us to the next prediction……
#4. WHILE THE BANGED-UP FALCONS DEFENSE FOCUSES ON TRYING TO STOPPING ALVIN KAMARA, SAINTS QUARTERBACK DREW BREES HAS HIS BEST GAME OF THE EARLY PART OF THE 2018 SEASON THUS FAR
The success of the Saints RB tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara is well-documented, as the duo helped redefine the Saints offensive scheme last year with a unique blend and combination of power running and speed on the outer edges of the field.
But Ingram is in the midst of a 4-game suspension, and the Saints rushing attack has clearly suffered in his absence. As of right now: the Saints are the NFL’s worst team running the football, averaging 52.5 rushing yards a game — which currently ranks them 32nd overall in the League.
However, in the first 2 games Kamara has been heavily involved on the pass-catching front, and currently is 2nd on the Saints team in receptions only to Michael Thomas thus far. The 23-year-old wasn’t nearly as productive from a yardage standpoint as he’d been Week #1, but his level of involvement is essentially an every-week lock.
In his lone full game against the Falcons last year, Kamara was held to 90 total yards; but starting Falcons linebacker and former LSU star Deion Jones’ (currently on injured reserve) speed at middle linebacker was a large factor in that game. Grant it, the Falcons still have speed at linebacker, and with another former LSU star ironically — in back-up LB Duke Riley,
But the relative inexperience of Atlanta’s defense without Jones and All-Pro safety Keanu Neal (also on injured reserve) showed in their win last week against the Panthers, when they had trouble stopping Panthers RB Christian McCaffery. The Falcons D yielded 439 yards, including 139 total yards on 22 touches for McCaffery.
In this Sunday’s contest, look for the Falcons defense to focus their efforts on stopping Kamara once again; but in turn that should allow Saints veteran QB and future 1st-ballot Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees, who’s had some of the biggest games of his 17-year NFL career against the Falcons, the opportunity to take advantage of a banged-up defensive secondary for Atlanta.
The Falcons defense is so squarely-focused on stopping Kamara, that they end up surrendering over 300 passing yards and 3 TD passes to the soon-to-be 40 year old Brees in this contest, as he carves up the Dirty Birds with another fine performance in the state of Georgia.
#3. THE SAINTS RUN DEFENSE HAS PROBLEMS AGAIN WITH CONTAINING THE FALCONS 2-HEADED RUNNING ATTACK
The Saints run defense has notably struggled on a few occasions dating all the way back to last season, which doesn’t bode well them in this contest after having surrendered 205 rushing yards in just the first two games of this current new season already.
That could be a cause for some concern for Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and crew as the Falcons will look to establish the run early with speedy RB Tevin Coleman. Coleman of course is one half of a dynamic RB duo along with fellow RB Devonta Freeman; but just as Kamara has been the lead back for the Saints during Ingram’s absence, Coleman will be the Falcons lead RB with Freeman expected to miss at least this game with a knee injury.
Against the Panthers defense last week, Coleman tallied 107 yards on 16 carries, demonstrating just how dangerous Atlanta’s running game can be even when Freeman is held out of action. Freeman will be replaced in this Sunday’s contest by back-up rookie RB and former University of Southern Mississippi star Ito Smith.
Smith, the Falcons 4th-round pick, was effective alongside Coleman last Sunday. Smith averaged over five yards per carry against a Carolina front seven that in Week 1 held Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott to his lowest rushing output since September of last season. Bottom line: he might not be the caliber of RB as Freeman is, but he’s still more than capable of getting the job done in Freeman’s absence.
In Sunday’s contest, Coleman will top 100 yards once again for Atlanta (122) on 18 carries; while Smith adds an additional 52 yards and a 2nd quarter TD as the struggles to stop the run for New Orleans continue for another week. And as if that weren’t bad enough for the Saints defensive unit as a whole, this next prediction is nearly as worse….
#2. MEANWHILE, THE SAINTS SECONDARY TRIES TO “HOLD ON FOR DEAR LIFE” AGAINST FALCONS ALL-PRO WIDE RECEIVER JULIO JONES AND THE HIGH-POWERED ATLANTA PASSING ATTACK
The Saints defensive secondary has been criticized heavily after the first 2 games, and that’s not necessarily surprising after they yielded over 400 passing yards and 5 TD’s alone following their Season-Opening loss to the Buccaneeers back in Week #1, and gave up what essentially was a late 4th quarter “Hail Mary” TD pass to Cleveland.
Now this week the Saints pass defense might face its toughest challenge that they’ll have all this entire season, against one of the NFL’s very best WR corps led by superstar All-Pro WR Julio Jones and rookie sensation and former University of Alabama star Calvin Ridley.
In two games against the Saints last year, Jones hauled in 12 passes for 247 yards. Jones has 15 catches for 233 yards thus far this season; and he has had more success against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore than any one WR, with the notable exception of course against Tampa WR Mike Evans in Week #1.
Jones now has help with the dynamic rookie Ridley, who made his first touchdown catch last week, and finished second on the team in targets and tied Jones for the Falcons lead in receiving yards. Ridley, who will be matched up against often-maligned and at-times-heavily-criticized Saints #2 CB Ken Crawley, scored his first career NFL score on an 11-yard reception in the 2nd quarter.
Ridley didn’t record a catch and was targeted just twice in Week #1 at Philadelphia, but his role has since expanded notably with Freeman sidelined and the opposition keying in on Jones. The Falcons also have other receiving threats with veteran WR Mohamed Sanu and TE Austin Hooper, but make no mistake as to who Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will be looking to throw to early and often.
In this contest, BOTH Falcons star WR’s will top over 100 yards receiving each, as this contest quickly evolves into a high-scoring affair in another typically wild game between these two long time bitter rivals. And that of course brings us to the final prediction this week, which is….
#1. AS YOU PROBABLY NOTICED BY NOW: THIS GAME BECOMES A “SHOOT OUT” — AND AS THE GAME SLOWLY CREEPS INTO THE DEEP PART OF THE 4TH QUARTER, THE SAINTS FIND THEMSELVES TRAILING BY A SCORE OF 34-27….WHEN SUDDENLY……
When suddenly on a critical 3-down-and-7 play, Brees finds an open Michael Thomas for a huge gain down the Atlanta sidelines, giving the Saints an opportunity to get down into the red zone and tie the game. Unfortunately, the drive stalls and New Orleans settles for a 35-yard Wil Lutz field goal to cut the score to 34-30.
But with only a little over 4 minutes remaining, all Atlanta has to do is to run the ball and hopefully pick up a first down, as they simultaneously try to run down the clock towards the 2-minute warning with the Saints trying to preserve their remaining 2 time-outs.
But as the Falcons face a 3rd-down-and-2 at their own 36-yard line, Saints LB Demario Davis makes a big hit on Coleman right at the line of scrimmage and stands him up short of the 1st down marker, forcing an Atlanta punt.
The Saints get the ball back at their own 27, and then “it” happens.
As Brees appears that he’s about to be sacked by Falcons defensive end / linebacker Vic Beasley, out of the corner of his eye he sees an open Kamara out of the backfield and manages to get a pass off in the flat to the dynamic 2nd year superstar; who then “jukes” THREE Falcons defenders and SPRINTS into the open field for an exhilarating 73-yard catch and TD run and the Saints take a 37-34 lead as the clock hits the 2-minute warning.
The Falcons still have plenty of time to try and score themselves however, needing a field goal to tie or a TD to potentially win the game. But on a 3rd-down-and-8 from their own 42-yard line and needing a 1st down to at least get into field goal range for the powerful leg of Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant, Ryan attempts to hit Ridley on a fade route but is INTERCEPTED by — surprise! — the often-maligned Ken Crawley, who returns the ball back up right near the Saints’ own 40 yard line with less than a minute to go.
The Falcons are forced to use their last two time-outs, but when they finally get the ball back after forcing the Saints to punt, they have only 10 seconds remaining to go 85 yards; and a Ryan “Hail Mary” attempt falls harmlessly incomplete as the game clock expires.
New Orleans ‘escapes’ Atlanta with a win — in typical Saints “nail-biting” fashion…..
FINAL SCORE: SAINTS 37, FALCONS 34
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!