10 November 2011

Down for a Jack Move, round 1

Sunday marks the first of two remaining games in 2011 for the Saints against their long-time rival, the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints hold a slight half-game edge in the NFC South standings, but are tied with Atlanta in the loss column (3).

With two of the Saints' remaining games against Atlanta, the NFC South division title will almost certainly come down to the outcomes of these two games.

The Falcons have won three straight games, and with this weekend's tilt, they will start a three-game homestretch where they'll be looking to take over first place in the NFC South. Over the course of their remaining schedule, the Falcons face opponents with a combined 44.7% win percentage (30-37) while playing five of their last eight at home.

On the other hand, the Saints' remaining opponents hold a 53.5% win percentage (30-26) with four of the last seven being played at home.

With the 2011 stretch fully upon us, this game couldn't be of much greater importance to the Saints.

This game will go a long way in determining if these 2011 Saints are the knock-out-artist, title contenders many presume them to be, or if they're just another run-of-the-mill, above-average team moonlighting as a trophy-lifter.

With all three of the Saints' losses coming in road games this year, a reversal of that losing trend would not just be timely, but it would also signal that the Saints have what it takes when lofty are the stakes.

If not now, when (win)?

Over the course of the most recent Saints-Falcons games--specifically those from 2008 forward in which both Sean Payton and Mike Smith have been involved--the Saints are 4-2 vs Atlanta, posting a 2-1 record in the Georgia Dome and a 2-1 record in the Superdome.

Furthermore, in the 25 home games with Mike Smith coaching and Matt Ryan as their QB, the Falcons have lost just three games.

And with both the Falcons and the Saints excelling in their home environment in the recent past, both teams have largely been evenly matched during the Smith-Payton rivalry.

The Saints have averaged 25.2 points in the six contents; the Falcons have averaged an even 25.

The Saints hold slight edges in the key categories of yards per play (6.3 vs 5.9) and passer efficiency (98.2 vs 93.4). Additionally, the Saints have a larger margin of average in yards per game (422 vs 374) which, really, isn't indicative of much.

Surprisingly, the Saints have run the ball better overall (4.3 YPC vs 4.1) while the Falcons have thrown the ball better (7.9 YPP vs 7.6). In the last three match-ups, though, the Saints have not hit the four-yards-per-carry benchmark.

Finally, the area that's most lopsided and most concerning for the Saints is in--you guessed it--turnover margin (everybody sigh). The Falcons are +4 in turnovers overall in these six contests. Further, the Saints are a lowly -5 in turnover margin in their two losses and a nominal +1 in their four victories.

The player who will play the most pivotal role in this Sunday's contest will likely be Matt Ryan. In his two wins against the Saints, his passer rating has been an excellent 121.4 as he's completed 66% of his passes for 4 TDs and no interceptions.

Conversely, in his losses to the Saints, Ryan has a middling 74.8 passer rating, a 56% completion rate, 3 TDs, and 4 INTs.

More importantly, Ryan has attempted on average about eight fewer passes per game in the two wins. This stat is consistent with his overall statistical body of work in which Ryan averages 9.1 fewer passes in wins than he does in losses (29.5 vs 38.6).

Ryan's career average in attempts per game is right at 32. So as Ryan nears and surpasses this baseline, the better the Saints chances are for victory.

And while Ryan attempting a higher number of passes is not specifically the cause of Falcons' losses, it is certainly correlated with those losses. Thus, a set of events that leads to Ryan throwing more passes than average is likely a recipe for a Saints' win.

Run defense, anybody? How about some turnovers? Or what about jumping out to an early lead?

The other player who could play a key role in the game's outcome might well be Pierre Thomas. With Mark Ingram attempting to return from a nagging heel injury and Chris Ivory nursing a freshly-sore hamstring, Thomas should be in line for plenty of snaps this weekend.

As opposing defenses continue to focus their game-planning efforts on neutralizing Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas should benefit from a lack of attention from the Falcons.

In the last six games against Atlanta, Thomas has averaged 93.7 yards (combined rushing and receiving) while scoring 5 TDs. He's been the Saints' most reliable and consistent threat against the Atlanta defense, and last year's week 16 contest cemented (for me, at least) Pierre Thomas' importance to the Saints' offense.

Returning from injury, Thomas logged 102 total yards and a TD in a critical Saints' win.

Does the never-gets-enough-credit PT have a little more of that magic in store?

The Falcons have been excellent this season in the red zone both offensively and defensively.

Combined with turnover statistics, this is an area that houses the biggest disparity between the teams. The Falcons are 2nd in red zone offense (64% TDs) and 4th in red zone defense (38% TDs allowed).

As has been noted repeatedly, the Saints are dead-last in red zone defense (71%) but a respectable 11th in red zone offense (54.6%).

In the turnover margin categories, the Falcons rank 12th at +2 while the Saints rank a disappointing 26th at -6.

I know this is repeated ad naseum to the point of eye-rollable annoyance, but look for these two areas to play a determining role in Sunday's game. If the previous nine weeks of the 2011 season are an indicator, then the Falcons possess a definitive edge in these areas.

Note - while I realize there's a school of thought that espouses belief that red zone stats are mostly meaningless because the red zone is just an arbitrary twenty-yard patch of field, we'll shelve that discussion for another day and move forward with the assumption that red zone statistics are worthy indicators, though not absolute in their predictive powers. 

Lastly, the Saints and Falcons have won the past two NFC South titles respectively, and it appears almost certain that one of these two will win it again this year.

On the season, the Saints have been up and down--good at home, not so good on the road. The Falcons started slowly, but have come on strong winning three straight.

And though the Saints are slight favorites in Vegas right now, I expect the line to move closer to even or Falcons -1 as kickoff nears; I'm also expecting a majority of the talking heads in the national media to pick the Falcons as winners in this game.

But regardless of how one spins it, this Sunday's game against the Falcons is a defining moment for the 2011 Saints.

A win would expressly restore the notion that the latest incarnation of the Saints are, indeed, championship-worthy.


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