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Saints try to add to Falcons' misery Thursday night
By: Brian Graham - StatFox
Published: 11/21/2013  at  6:31:00 AM
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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (8-2)
at ATLANTA FALCONS (2-8)

Kickoff: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET
Line: New Orleans -9, Total: 53

The Falcons try to end a long losing skid when they host the division rival Saints on Thursday night.

New Orleans remained perfect at home with a 23-20 win over the 49ers Sunday, but is just 1-3 ATS (2-2 SU) on the road this year. But Atlanta has been drilled in four straight games, losing by an average of 18.5 PPG. The Falcons were three yards away from a Week 1 road win over the Saints, but QB Matt Ryan was intercepted in the end zone in the game’s final minute of a 23-17 defeat. Although QB Drew Brees is 12-3 with 4,635 passing yards and 31 TD in this series since arriving in New Orleans, he threw 5 INT in last year’s visit to Atlanta, resulting in a 23-13 loss. However, since the start of 2011, the Saints are 20-7 ATS (74%) in dome games, and 15-3 ATS (83%) versus poor passing defenses (235+ passing YPG allowed). Although the Falcons are 0-6 ATS as an underdog this year, they are 11-3 ATS (79%) when coming off a double-digit loss under head coach Mike Smith. Both teams are dealing with significant injuries, as New Orleans could be without RB Darren Sproles (ankle) and S Kenny Vaccaro (concussion), while Atlanta star TE Tony Gonzalez (toe) and backup RB Jason Snelling (legal problems) are also listed as questionable.

Can the Falcons hang in with the mighty Saints on Thursday night? For the answer, connect to NFL Best Bets for all the StatFox Experts picks throughout the 2013 season and playoffs. The experts are surging in NFL Best Bets, combining for a 60% ATS record (29-19-6) over the past four weeks. StatFox Brian went 2-1-2 ATS in Week 11 to improve to 70% ATS (14-6-2) over the past five weeks where he's been above .500 every week. Brian has not had a losing week in NFL Best Bets since Week 3. StatFox Gary has four perfect weeks in NFL Best Bets since Week 4, while StatFox Scott is 58% ATS (15-11-1) in that same timeframe. StatFox Dave is 54% ATS (7-6-1) in NFL Best Bets since Week 8.

Saints QB Drew Brees is in the midst of another tremendous season, ranking second in the NFL (behind only Peyton Manning) in passing yards (3,369) and passing touchdowns (26), while throwing just 8 INT on his 406 pass attempts. He has done this by targeting four receivers at least 55 times -- TE Jimmy Graham (846 rec. yards, 10 TD), WR Marques Colston (529 rec. yards, 2 TD) and RBs Darren Sproles (463 rec. yards, 2 TD) and Pierre Thomas (349 rec. yards, 3 TD). All four of these players caught at least four passes in the Week 1 win over Atlanta, with Graham and Colston scoring touchdowns. The ground game has shown signs of life in the past two weeks with 334 rushing yards, but it still ranks 23rd in the NFL in both rushing yards (97.2 YPG) and yards per carry (3.9 YPC). RB Mark Ingram has rushed for 189 yards on 7.9 YPC since his return from a toe injury, but he was held to 11 yards on nine carries in the Week 1 meeting with the Falcons. The Saints defense set an NFL record for futility last year with 440 total YPG allowed, but they have cut that number down to 305 YPG this season, which ranks 4th in the NFL. They also rank third in the league in passing defense (191.4 YPG), but they continue to have a hard time stopping the run, allowing an NFL-worst 4.9 yards per carry this season. New Orleans gives up just 18.3 PPG (5th in league) due in large part to an NFL-low 26:15 time of possession. This has occurred not only due to a great offense, but also because the defense is preventing long drives with a 33% conversion rate defense on third down (3rd in NFL). The Saints need to force more mistakes though, tallying 0-to-1 takeaways in five of their past six games.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan has seen a huge drop in numbers this year, throwing for 7.1 YPA, 18 TD and 12 INT compared to 7.7 YPA, 32 TD and 14 INT from last season. His decline can be attributed largely to an injured receiving corps with WR Julio Jones (1,198 rec. yards, 10 TD last year) out for the season and WR Roddy White (1,351 rec. yards, 7 TD in 2012) compiling just 185 yards and 1 TD this year due to various ailments. But their injuries have allowed WR Harry Douglas (749 rec. yards) to emerge as Ryan's top target, especially over the past five games where Douglas has caught 35 passes for 535 yards and two scores. This includes a game-high 93 receiving yards in the Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Douglas' emergence has also helped make up for a dreadful ground game that has the second-fewest rushing yards in the league (73.1 YPG). There was one bright spot to the rushing attack in last week's 41-28 loss to Tampa Bay though. RB Antone Smith, who entered the game with two career carries, gained 88 yards on just two rushes against the Bucs with a 50-yard touchdown and then a 38-yard gain, both in the fourth quarter. As disappointing as the offense has been, it's really the Atlanta defense that is mostly to blame for this lost season. The Falcons have allowed the fourth-most points (29.2 PPG) and fourth-most yards per play (6.1) in the NFL, ranking 30th against the run (132.7 YPG) and 22nd against the pass (249.2 YPG). They have the 2nd-worst defense on third downs (46% conversions) and have also been gashed in the red zone (64% efficiency, 28th in NFL). Forcing mistakes has also been a weak spot for this team, as Atlanta has amassed a mere four takeaways in the past seven games combined.

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