After missing a majority of the game the first time the Saints played Atlanta over 2 weeks ago due to a 1st quarter concussion, it quickly became evident just how important Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara has become to the team's offense.
Not having Kamara in their line-up clearly threw the Saints offense out of their rhythm and out of sync for the remainder of that Week #14 Thursday Night contest; in which New Orleans' final stat line of 17 points, 306 total yards. 50 rushing yards (all season-lows), and a 3 out of 10 third-down conversion rate (30%) all seemed to suggest after the Rookie of the Year candidate was lost for the night after just eight plays.
Long story short: the Saints offense is still pretty good without Kamara, but they NEED him to efficiently and successfully operate their offensive scheme.
Without Kamara in the line-up?
The Saints offense CLEARLY struggled at times — since they missed the added dimension that he brings to their offensive attack, specifically in the short-passing game out of the backfield.
The Saints offense has come to heavily "lean on" Kamara's notable talents since the Week #3 win against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina; and they've morphed into a different "style" of offense this season because of what Kamara's abilities bring to the table.
With him missing from the line-up following a helmet-to-helmet hit that he received from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, the Saints offense just seemed to be a bit 'off' the rest of the night.
And yet in spite of all that, they STILL had a chance to win the game in the end, but simply failed to get the job done.
The rest of that first Atlanta game also illustrated just how important Kamara has become for the team's chances at success going forward.
Can they still win games without Kamara?
Yes, they can.
But as that first meeting in Atlanta 2 weeks ago clearly demonstrated: it wouldn't be as easy of a task in comparison to when he is in there playing.
Kamara has rushed for 650 yards, caught 66 passes for another 659 yards and scored 12 total touchdowns.
Essentially, Kamara has the skill-set of a 25-30 carries per game running back who is equally as comfortable taking on the duties of a wide receiver and also is similarly adept at running routes.
To say that he's the most complete and versatile RB in the NFL right now might be insulting him. And when you factor in his incredible athletic capabilities, his impact upon the team can't be overstated.
And they definitely would not be (10-4) and contending for a Playoff spot this year, if they didn't have Kamara in the line-up.
Following a 10-day break to fully recover from his concussion, Kamara returned to the field last week at home against the New York Jets and didn't skip a single beat.
He carried 12 times for 44 yards in the running game, and added 6 catches for 45 yards and a touchdown in the receiving game.
One would imagine that Kamara's presence on the field should make a HUGE difference against the Falcons in tomorrow's highly-anticipated rematch, because of the 21-year old's unique blend of raw athleticism, power, speed and elusiveness that nobody else on the Saints roster really has right now.
As CBSSports.com NFL analyst Jared Dubin observed yesterday: Atlanta's defense is .
When the Saints didn't have Kamara on the field a couple weeks ago, Dublin says that they did not have their player best-suited to use the Falcons' speed against them by getting them to over-pursue and not just cut back against the grain, but out-run the defense to the opposite side of the field.
In other words, the Saints didn't have someone to stretch the field horizontally in order to allow Mark Ingram to pound the ball up the middle, or Drew Brees to work the ball deep down the field.
Dublin notes that it's not a coincidence that the first Falcons game 2 weeks ago was one of just four this season where the Saints did not have a carry that went for 20-plus yards, or that Brees threw only one pass 20 yards or more downfield, compared to his season-long average of four per game.
In tomorrow afternoon's contest, Dublin says that the Atlanta defense should have enough problems against the Saints' passing-game options (Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr.), but the real weakness of their defense is against the run.
He makes the observation that the Falcons' intention of building a defense based on speed works when you're winning games and forcing the other team to pass, but if they try to overpower you at the line of scrimmage, the lack of big-enough bodies can be a huge disadvantage.
And with the Saints top-notch offensive line expecting all of their starters to play tomorrow, it's more than likely that we'll see a much heavier commitment to the running game this time around in comparison to the first meeting; when the loss of Kamara forced the Saints offense to go back to last season's "pass first" scheme.
With Kamara back, Dublin adds that it's difficult to envision Atlanta holding the Saints to anything close to 17 points again, which should make it considerably more difficult for the Falcons to come away with a win.
Saints fans are certainly hoping that he's right, in that regard.
The stakes are now as high as they've been all season long.
The Saints can clinch a spot in the Playoffs by beating Atlanta, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, 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 into the Playoffs.
Winning both games would give them the NFC South Division Championship.
And we all know what losing both games would mean.