NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
The New Orleans Saints' long-running series with the Atlanta Falcons has been filled with close games, especially when you consider that half of their 88 previous meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
Such was the case when the teams opened the 2013 season with a thriller in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the Saints prevailing 23-17 on an end zone interception with less than a minute remaining.
Even though the Falcons (2-8) are struggling this season, it wouldn't be surprising if the Saints (8-2) had to work extra hard to come out of the Georgia Dome with another win on Thursday night.
The Saints are coming off a 23-20 win against the San Francisco 49ers, while the Falcons are on a four-game losing streak after dropping a 41-28 decision at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
But the Saints aren't going to be taking anything for granted as they try to extend their NFC South lead over the Carolina Panthers to 1 1/2 games -- especially because the games with the Falcons are usually highly competitive regardless of their records.
"I mentioned this in the team meeting," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You could really go back through the last six, seven, (or) eight years and every one of these games seems to come down to a one possession type of game.
"Regardless of how one team is doing or how the other team is doing, it has been really consistent and I expect this to be the same. It is a tough place to play, they have been very good at home."
The season opener certainly followed the script when Saints strong safety Roman Harper came away with an interception in the end zone after rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped away Matt Ryan's fourth-down pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"It came down to the last possession ... they seem to be played in a lot of ways very similarly in that they end up in a fourth down," Payton added. "The (game) ends up with a field goal late, and that is what makes it exciting."
As for the Falcons' struggles this season, Payton attributed some of their misfortune to injuries -- especially star wide receiver Julio Jones.
"In our league there is such a fine line that you deal with, especially when it comes to injuries," Payton said. "We could point to a number of seasons where you play in a number of games and you're able to win the close games -- maybe -- as opposed to not.
"I know how difficult it is to win in our league and I know how often these games come down to the final plays -- making a play in the end and having a chance to win. When you add the injury element to it, it obviously is that much more difficult."
SERIES HISTORY: 89th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 46-42, but the Saints have won 12 of 15 matchups with their NFC South rivals since Sean Payton arrived in 2006. They played in the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with the Saints holding on late for a 23-17 win. They've also met once in the postseason with the Falcons taking a 27-20 win in a 1991 wild-card game.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
The controversy over a key personal foul penalty on San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks against Drew Brees in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 23-20 win by the Saints continues to simmer.
Former NFL linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ray Lewis were among the players defending Brooks, who was flagged when he hit Brees in the neck and head area, according to referee Tony Corrente.
Brees fumbled on the play and the 49ers recovered, but the Saints retained possession with a first down and went on to kick the game-tying field goal and then won on another field goal on the game's final play.
Lewis said he would pay part of Brooks' fine if he were disciplined by the NFL and Bruschi urged Brees, who said he was clothes-lined and suffered a bloody lip on the play, to get tough. The NFL has said the call was correct.
Brees tried to diffuse the situation by saying that he didn't believe Brooks' hit was intentional.
"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees said Tuesday. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. ... A hard-nosed, clean football player.
"You can slow (the replay) down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the arm is,'" he added. "But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. There was no doubt in my mind it was going to be a penalty, but it is hard."
--After beating the Atlanta Falcons in the season opener on Sept. 8, 23-17, the Saints have a chance to sweep the season series with their long-time divisional rivals on Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.
The Saints have swept four times in Sean Payton's first six seasons -- 2006, '07, '09 and '11 -- after being swept in six of the previous 10 seasons.
Overall, the Saints are 12-3 against the Falcons since Payton took over in 2006. Of course, he was suspended in 2012 when the teams split, which means he's 11-2 vs. Atlanta.
Payton is also 5-1 in the Georgia Dome against the Falcons with the only loss coming in 2008, 34-20.
--With a 3-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Josh Hill in Sunday's win against the 49ers, Brees has now thrown 270 scoring passes since joining the Saints in 2006.
Brees has thrown at least one to 30 different Saints players and 45 players in all -- counting his first five NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
--The Saints, who'll play their final November game against the Falcons on Thursday night, are 2-1 this month with two wins in a row after falling to the New York Jets on Nov. 3.
The Saints have won 18 of their last 22 games played in November dating to the 2008 season.
--Falcons coach Mike Smith is only 3-8 against the Saints going into Thursday night's game, but is 55-24 against all other teams.
BY THE NUMBERS: 350 -- Career touchdown passes for Saints quarterback Drew Brees after he had one in Sunday's 23-20 win against the San Francisco 49ers. Brees is fourth in NFL history behind only Brett Favre (508), Peyton Manning (470) and Dan Marino (420).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know there's anything new. I think it is always about backing off padded practices and it becomes more mental in regards to meetings and walk-throughs and allowing their bodies to recover." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on coming back after a Sunday game and playing on Thursday night.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LCB Jabari Greer was put on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn ACL in his left knee after being hurt in Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers.
--LCB Corey White, a second-year pro and fifth-round draft pick in 2012, will start in Greer's place Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons.
--SS Roman Harper, who played Sunday for the first time since Sept. 15, could be back in the starting lineup against the Falcons.
--CB Trevin Wade, a second-year player, was signed to the active roster after Greer was put on season-ending injured reserve.
--RG Jahri Evans did not practice Tuesday because of an ankle injury and his status for Thursday night's game with the Atlanta Falcons is unknown.
--RB Darren Sproles was held out of practice Tuesday with knee and ankle issues and his availability for Thursday night is not known.
--S Kenny Vaccaro, who has a concussion, returned to work on a limited basis Tuesday but it's not known if he'll play against the Falcons.
--TE Benjamin Watson missed Sunday's game with a concussion, but was able to work on a limited basis Tuesday.
--LB Curtis Lofton was limited Tuesday with hamstring and ankle problems, but should play Thursday night.
--DE Cameron Jordan, who's been bothered by an ankle injury, practiced on a limited basis Tuesday and will likely play against the Falcons.
--TE Jimmy Graham, who has foot and elbow injuries, was limited again Tuesday but should be able to play Thursday night.
--LG Ben Grubbs has a neck injury and had limited participation in Tuesday's practice and should play against the Falcons.
--DE Akiem Hicks continues to be limited in practice with a back injury, but should be ready to go Thursday night.
--CB Chris Carr was limited Tuesday because of hip, back and hamstring problems, but likely will play against the Falcons.
--DE Tyrunn Walker had limited participation in practice again Tuesday and could be available for Thursday night's game.
--CB Rod Sweeting has had a nagging hip injury and was limited in practice on Tuesday, but could play Thursday night.
GAME PLAN: For the past three weeks, the Saints have spent a lot of time trying to get their struggling running game going. They showed signs of life, especially in rolling up 242 yards against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 10, and Thursday night will try to get it going vs. the Falcons' 30th-ranked rush defense. If they can get Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram going, the passing game should thrive with Drew Brees playing at a high level.
Defensively, the Saints have held their last two opponents to below 200 total yards, so keeping Steven Jackson in check -- much like they did last Sunday against Frank Gore -- will allow them to try and clamp down on Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints RCB Keenan Lewis vs. Falcons WR Roddy White. The Saints did a decent job in the season opener against Julio Jones, but they did a much better job in holding White to 19 yards on just two catches. Lewis has been their shutdown corner all season, so keeping tabs on White will be a priority.
Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Falcons secondary. The Falcons upgraded their secondary after finishing 23rd in the league against the pass last season, but they're 22nd after 10 games. Brees has been on a tear lately with 12 TDs and 1,411 yards in his last four outings. If the Saints get the running game going, the Falcons' secondary could be at risk.
Saints front seven vs. Falcons RB Steven Jackson. The Saints haven't been great against the run, but they're a lot better than last year and rank 17th in allowing 114.0 yards per game. Jackson gained 77 yards on 11 carries in the season opener with a 50-yard run, so the Saints will try to build on holding him to just 27 yards on the other 10 attempts.