New Orleans Saints (6-3) at Atlanta Falcons (5-3)
1. It's the NFC South, so expect the unexpected
Think NFC South and the first two teams that come to mind are these two. And why not?
Either the Saints or Falcons have finished first in the division each of the last two seasons, with Atlanta posting a conference-best 13-3 mark in 2010 and New Orleans doing the same in '10 on its way to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
In '09, though, it was Carolina that won the division. In '08, it was Tampa Bay.
The NFC South, in fact, is one of just two divisions since the league expanded and realigned in 2002 to have each of its teams win the division over a four-year span, with the other being the AFC West ('02-05).
The Saints lead the alltime division series 11-7, including four wins over the last five games, but the previous three meetings were all decided by a field goal, including one in overtime, and last year both won on the other's home field on the way to each reaching the postseason.
"It's become one of those great divisional games that are fun and everybody wants to play in," Saints wide receiver Lance Moore said. "And just about all of them have been close."
New Orleans has won nine straight games in November, dating to the 2008 season, which suggests the Saints know how to start peaking at the right time. They played one of their better all-around games last week, unleashing that high-powered and balanced offense (ranked No. 1 in the NFL) on division rival Tampa Bay, a week after laying an egg with a hideous loss at then-winless St. Louis. That game followed a 62-7 blowout of also-winless Indianapolis, which had Drew Brees and friends looking like (and probably thinking they were) world-beaters. The Rams defeat brought them back to reality. The Bucs win put them back on track.
The Falcons started a disappointing 2-3, but have won three straight, the last two on the road, with the whipping-post Colts their latest victim. And while not as explosive as the Saints on offense (what team is?), the Falcons have averaged 30 points in their five victories.
Atlanta, hasn't really established much of an identity yet -- the Falcons are middling statistically on offense and defense -- so maybe it'll take a game against the Saints to determine just who they are.
2. Catch two rising stars making catches
Brees and Matt Ryan are doing what they do under center. Michael Turner is running over people and Darren Sproles is running through and between them, making would-be tacklers (and front-office types who passed on his free-agent services) look stupid. Roddy White and Marcus Colston remain among the most dangerous in the game.
Great players, all of them. But the flavors of the month are Jimmy Graham and Julio Jones.
Graham, the Saints second-year tight end, ranks third in the NFL in receptions (only Wes Welker and Sproles have caught more balls) with 55 for 791 yards (that's 14.4 per) and five touchdowns. It didn't take the former University of Miami power forward long to make the transition from project to likely Pro Bowl pick.
"He's in the right place," Moore said of the young, new weapon for an offense that's ranked No. 1 in the league in averaging 445 yards per game, including 319 through the air. "He's got the perfect offense, the perfect quarterback and perfect guys around him to help turn him into an elite player."
At 6-6, 260 pounds and armed with a power forward's mentality when it comes to going after the ball, Graham presents serious matchup problems for a defense, as the Falcons (specifically their linebackers, safeties and the rest of that suspect back seven, part of the league's 19th-ranked pass defense) are about to find out.
Speaking of safeties, the guys who play it for the Saints probably have done some tossing and turning in their sleep this week after watching tape of Jones. The rookie first-round pick from Alabama caught three passes last week against Indianapolis for 131 yards and touchdowns of 50 and 80 yards.
For the season, Jones has caught 28 passes, which is tied for tops among NFC rookies, for 485 yards (17.5 per) and the two scores. With him flanked opposite White, good luck picking poisons, Saints.
3. New Orleans is perfect when it comes to defending the red zone ... perfectly horrible, that is.
Memo to the Falcons: If you get inside the New Orleans' 20, get the kickoff team ready. The Saints kick return unit already will be.
Get this: 21 times, opposing offenses have reached the New Orleans red zone this season and 21 times that team has come away with points.
Can't get much worse than surrendering points 100 percent of the time (the next-worst is 90.9). But that's not even the Saints' most troublesome red-zone defense number. Of those 21 possessions, 15 have ended in touchdowns. That's 71.4 percent, also last in the NFL.
"At the beginning of the season, it was a joking thing," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins told reporters in New Orleans. "But now we're really taking the stuff serious because it's preventing us from being where we want to be defensively."
Worth noting: Atlanta's offense has 18 touchdowns in 28 red-zone chances, good for 89.3 percent and second-best in the NFL.
In his fourth year since being selected as a second-round pick out of Oklahoma, Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton has grown into a tackling machine. According to NFL.com stats, Lofton has 76 tackles at the midpoint of the season -- that ranks fourth in the league -- and is on pace to best his career-high of 133 in 2009. Here are excerpts of a chat with SI.com.
After a big win against the Lions, Coach Mike Smith gave you guys the entire bye week off and you responded with that all-purpose 31-7 whipping of Indianapolis last weekend. How'd you like that tactic?
"Obviously, I thought it was great. I think we all did. After getting the whole week off, we knew we had to go down to Indianapolis and really execute in all three phases. We did that. Hopefully, he'll continue to give us a whole week off after that bye. It worked."
You hear so much more about the Falcons offense and very little about the defense. Why is that?
"Well, we've got a lot of big names on our offense and all the credit goes to them. They've been playing well. Michael Turner has been to Pro Bowls. So has Matt Ryan. Tony Gonzalez is going to go to the Hall of Fame. Then there's Roddy White, who's been great, and now we have Julio. They're going to overshadow our defense. We know that.
But we've got a great defense and some great players, too, and we've really done some good things. The last three weeks, it really started in our practices. Everybody has made a concerted effort to say, 'We're going to practice how we play.' We've focused and put an even greater emphasis on tackling and communicating so that when Sunday comes around it's nothing new. That's really helped. We've brought an attitude that we are not going to be a weak link on this team. We have to carry our own weight."
You'll have to carry it against the No. 1 offense in the NFL this week.
"Man, they challenge you in every aspect of the game. They have a four-headed monster at running back. and, of course, Drew Brees is very talented. We have to go out and shut down their running game and make them one-dimensional and then send Abe [defensive end John Abraham] and [DE] Ray Edwards and those guys at 'em. If we hold up in the back, we should have a good game."
How much faster is Sproles when you're playing against him and actually have to try to tackle him?
(Pause ... Chuckle) Well ... he is fast, man. I saw him play when he was at K-State and maybe one other time when he was in San Diego. You just can't simulate that kind of speed at practice. He's pretty special. He has great acceleration, can run through tackles and has great hands to catch it out of the backfield. He's everything you want in a back. He may be a shorter guy, but with those 6-6, 6-7 linemen in there, you'd better know where he is because suddenly he just pops out of nowhere, which makes him even more difficult to stop. But we'll be ready for him."
How would you categorize this Saints-Falcons rivalry?
Well, they hate us, we hate them. That's it. No love lost. I would say there is a lot respect from both sides, but it's going to be a hard-hitting game that's probably going to come down to the fourth quarter; probably even the last two minutes."
Speaking of we-hate-them and they-hate us, what about that OU-Okie State game this weekend?
"What? You serious? Oklahoma and Oklahoma State?"
Yeah, I'm serious. Big rivalry, big game, right?
"Man, you can't even put that into the same category. You can't even call it a rivalry, really, when one team dominates every single year. ... Really, it's like this: Oklahoma State every year has this great offense and puts up a bunch of points, but then they find out -- guess what -- Oklahoma has a great offense and an actual defense that stops your from scoring points. They won't be able to stop our offense. They never do. But we'll stop theirs. Always do."
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was a pretty good basketball college basketball player at Miami, then upon entering graduate school chose to play one season of football. He caught 17 passes and showed enough promise for the Saints to make him a third-round draft pick. Who would have thought, back when Graham was still running up and down the hardwood just three years ago, that he'd be tracking to put his name alongside some of the greatest tight ends ever to play in the NFL? Graham, in just his second year, is on pace to average the second-most receiving yards for a tight end in NFL history.
Atlanta, even with a pass rush that improved in the season's second quarter, remains among the worst in the league at sacking the quarterback. Brees is a tough guy to pressure because he gets rid of the ball so quickly and has all those explosive options around him. Not a good combination.
"I think we've all got the mentality that anybody can get the ball at any time in our offense," Moore said. "We don't necessarily go into a game thinking this guy is going to have a big game based on this matchup, but we know that if we do what we do out there -- by that, knowing what we're doing and executing our assignments -- that Drew is going to be sharp enough to get the ball to the guy who's open. That works well for us not really allowing a defense to get a key on one or two guys."
It's worked against the Falcons four of the last five times.
The Saints haven't been very good on the road this season, but the Falcons and the NFC South stakes will up the ante.
Pick: New Orleans 29, Atlanta 24
Last week's pick: Pittsburgh 19, Baltimore 10Last week's result: Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20Season record: 7-2