This Sunday on Christmas Eve, the New Orleans Saints will host their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons in a "rematch" from their controversial game from 2 weeks ago at Atlanta, in a contest (12 p.m. noon kickoff) at the Superdome in what obviously will be the biggest game of the entire season for New Orleans.
A win over the Falcons clinches a Playoff spot for the Saints, while another loss to Atlanta would FORCE New Orleans to win on the road at Tampa Bay in their final game on New Year's Eve (December 31st) to just even barely make it in the Playoffs.
So it goes without saying: this is the biggest game for the Saints franchise since the last time that they were in the Playoffs following the 2013 season, when they lost in the NFC Divisional Playoffs to the Seahawks in Seattle.
But as far as the Saints-Falcons rivalry goes?
Given all of the controversial events during and after the first meeting between these two teams, this Sunday's game could be THE BIGGEST Saints vs. Falcons game EVER played between the two teams, considering what's at stake.
It's with that in mind this morning, that the Saints News Network presents our 5 "bold predictions" for this Sunday's ever-so-important match-up...........
#5. AFTER MISSING MOST OF THE 1ST MEETING WITH A CONCUSSION, SAINTS ROOKIE RUNNING BACK ALVIN KAMARA HITS THE FALCONS DEFENSE WITH A DOUBLE DOSE OF RUNNING & CATCHING FOR OVER 100 PLUS SCRIMMAGE YARDS
Kamara just yesterday was one of four rookies selected for the January 28th Pro Bowl game in Orlando, Fla., joining teammate Marshon Lattimore, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt and Arizona’s Budda Baker. He is one of six Saints that were selected to participate in the League's annual all-star game.
It's the first time in the Saints' entire 51-year history that two rookies made the Pro Bowl. Additionally, Kamara and backfield mate / starting #1 RB Mark Ingram will be the first RB's from the same team to make the Pro Bowl in 42 years, according to the good folks over at ESPN.
The 22-year-old sensation out of the University of Tennessee has been one of the most versatile running backs in football, rushing for 652 yards (6.6 per carry) and 7 touchdowns; while catching 68 passes for 684 yards (10.1 per catch) and 5 more scores — so his selection yesterday should come as no surprise.
For this coming Sunday's game, Kamara will show the world why he's worthy of such recognition; as he turns in another performance of 100 plus yards from scrimmage (9 carries, 42 yards; 5 catches, 78 yards and a TD) after he had missed most of the first meeting between the teams when he suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Falcons linebacker and former LSU star Deion Jones.
#4. AFTER ONLY BEING PENALIZED 4 TIMES IN THE PREVIOUS MEETING, THIS TIME IT'S THE FALCONS WHO DRAW MORE PENALTIES FROM GAME REFEREES
In their loss at Atlanta on Thursday Night Football 2 weeks ago, the Saints were called for 11 penalties on the night by referee Clete Blakeman's crew, adding up to 87 yards. The Falcons meanwhile only were penalized 4 times for a total of 35 yards.
However, the difference came in first downs from penalties — New Orleans had zero, and Atlanta had nine.
Veteran NFL referee Pete Morelli and his crew have the assignment of officiating the game this week, and perhaps by coincidence or not, end up calling more penalties on the Falcons this time around.
Atlanta will draw a total of 8 penalties for 71 yards, while the Saints are penalized 4 times for 35 yards; which in the process after the game will finally put to bed the rumors among some very passionate and die-hard Saints fans, of a League-wide "conspiracy theory" to intentionally harm the New Orleans franchise.
Or should we say: put the rumors to bed for the rest of this Saints season, anyway.
#3. AFTER STRUGGLING ON 3RD DOWN OFFENSE IN RECENT WEEKS, THE SAINTS CONVERT OVER 60% THIS TIME AROUND
The Saints have notably been struggling as of late to convert 3rd downs on offense, and in back-to-back weeks now have converted 3 out of 10 attempts for (30%).
While there's been many factors such as injuries to the O-Line and the lack of a true receiving tight end that skewer that particular statistic, the plain truth is that often it's been the simple matter of a lack of execution on the offense's part with a poorly thrown pass, a holding penalty, a wide receiver running the wrong route, etc. etc.
Can the Saints cut down on the sloppiness in time with the most important game of the regular season upon them?
In this contest they will, as the offense comes into the game focused and bolstered by a fired-up Superdome crowd; and manages to convert over 60 % (7 for 12) of their 3rd down attempts.
It's not a HUGE improvement by any means, but in a game of this magnitude?
It becomes a difference-maker.
#2. AFTER AVOIDING CAM JORDAN FOR MOST OF THEIR FIRST MEETING 2 WEEKS AGO, FALCONS QB MATT RYAN IS SACKED TWICE AND THROWN COMPLETELY OUT OF RHYTHM
Falcons QB Matt Ryan has actually been very inconsistent this year after leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl and winning the League MVP last year, and that never was more evident in the first meeting between the teams 2 weeks ago when Ryan has some success moving the ball against the Saints defense but also was intercepted 3 times.
Part of the reason that Ryan was able to still succeed was the lack of a Saints pass rush, as New Orleans got to Ryan for a sack only once and only managed to hit him 5 other times.
It also was because Ryan managed to avoid the man who's become a thorn in his side for a majority of these games over the years in Pro-Bowl (just named yesterday) Saints defensive end Cam Jordan. In the first meeting, Jordan was held without a sack and recorded only 2 assisted tackles in what was a relatively quiet game for him.
But in this contest, Jordan will feed off a feisty and energetic home crowd inside of the Superdome; and power his way to 2 sacks of Ryan (one of 4 total for the Saints defense) and hits him 3 other times, along with another pass defensed / batted down to further add to his double-digit total this season.
As a result, Ryan is completely thrown out of rhythm — leading to opportunities for the Saints defense to make some big plays.
#1. IN A "BACK-AND-FORTH" CONTEST ALL AFTERNOON LONG AT THE SUPERDOME, THE SCORE IS TIED AT 24 APIECE LATE IN THE 4TH QUARTER WHEN SUDDENLY...............
With the Saints driving the football for what hopefully will be the go-ahead score, New Orleans faces a critical 3rd down and short at their own 28-yard line. A swing pass out in the flat to Kamara is swarmed over by the Falcons defense, and once again it appears that the Saints offense has failed to convert when they've needed to.
But hold everything: the Falcons are penalized for a late hit on Drew Brees by defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, and the Saints are given new life at their 43-yard line with 3:41 remaining in the contest.
3 plays later, the Saints again are facing a 3rd-down-and-short; but this time Brees hits an open Brandon Coleman, and the 3rd year WR makes up for his 2 fumbles against the Jets last week with a clutch catch to "move the sticks" and get the team into field goal range at the Atlanta 32-yard line
But the Saints drive eventually stalls and New Orleans is forced to kick a 47-yard field goal by Wil Lutz to take a precarious 27-24 lead right before the 2-minute Warning.
Unfortunately for the Saints, they've left plenty of time for the Falcons to at least tie it with a field goal of their own or even win it with a TD.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff on a kneel down in the end zone, the Falcons set up shop at the Saints 25-yard line, and IMMEDIATELY get into field goal range when RB Devonta Freeman rips off a HUGE gain of 32 yards to the New Orleans 43-yard line before he's tripped up by a TD-saving tackle by Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams.
But an incompletion by Ryan on first down and a short gain by a gassed Freeman gives Atlanta a 3rd down-and-7 at the Saints 40, and the Falcons know that another incompletion in this situation would give Falcons kicker Matt Bryant a makeable 57-yard attempt, albeit not a certainty.
As the football world awaits with baited breath, Ryan drops back to pass but is pressured off the snap by Cam Jordan, who forces Ryan off his mark just ever so slightly as he prepares to throw an "out route" to star WR Julio Jones.
But right after the ball leaves his hands, in a moment that's nearly frozen in time like the ones seen in old NFL Films videos, Ryan realizes too late that Saints rookie CB Marshon Lattimore has JUMPED THE ROUTE.
Lattimore makes an interception for a 3rd straight week, but none more so bigger than this one; as he takes the ball all the way down the Saints sideline for a 70-yard "Pick 6" TD while a DELIRIOUS Superdome crowd of 70,000 plus Saints fans jumping and screaming in their seats, nearly blow the roof of the building with a hysterical celebration for the ages.
After nearly a 4-year absence, the New Orleans Saints are heading back to the NFL Playoffs.......