New Orleans Saints (-7, 48.5 over/under) vs. Atlanta Falcons, Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)
Both teams were coming off their bye. The Falcons had lost their last six games but regrouped in a desperate attempt to salvage their season.
The Saints had won their last six games, but inexplicably played their worst game of the season.
The teams meet again Thanksgiving night in Atlanta and the Saints are hoping to leave with more than a win.
“They came out and played good football,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “They were able to hit us in the mouth. Anytime that happens you look forward to the chance to get that back. I’m sure (the previous loss) will provide a little extra fuel to the fire.”
Adding fuel to the rematch: The Saints (9-2) can win their third NFC South title in a row by beating their long-time division rival.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Saints tight end Jared Cook said. “I think everybody understands the task that is at hand, but we can’t let that overwhelm us or let that be our sole focus. We have to focus on going in and getting this game against a good Atlanta team that we already took a loss to earlier this season.”
New Orleans bounced back from the loss to Atlanta to win at Tampa Bay (34-17) the following week and got past Carolina (34-31) at home last week.
But the loss to the Falcons started a trend the Saints are hoping to stop. In that game New Orleans was penalized 12 times for 90 yards and gave Atlanta six first downs via penalty.
The Saints didn’t do much better against Tampa Bay (nine penalties for 76 yards) and they did even worse against Carolina (12 penalties for 123 yards).
“It’s concerning. It’s troubling,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “We’re going to play a different opponent down the road and it’s going to cost us in a bigger game. We’ve got to work on that. And that starts certainly with me and our staff. That is something that we have to definitely improve on.”
The Saints have improved offensively since the first game against the Falcons.
After not scoring a touchdown in that game, they have matched their second-highest point total of the season in each of the last two games.
After rushing for a season-low 52 yards they have rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last two games.
After Drew Brees was sacked a season-high six times he has been sacked a total of two times in the last two games.
The improvement that the Falcons showed against the Saints carried over into a 29-3 victory at Carolina the following week.
But they looked like the pre-bye team last Sunday when they lost to Tampa Bay, 35-22, their fourth consecutive home loss.
“We took two steps forward and then took a step back,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
The Falcons (3-8) found their best pass rush of the season when they had 11 sacks against the Saints and Panthers, but they had none against the Buccaneers.
Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high six times by Tampa Bay, two times more than the Saints and Panthers got to him.
On the final sack of Ryan, he fumbled. Ndamukong Suh picked up the ball and ran six yards for the Bucs’ final score. After that Matt Schaub replaced Ryan and drove Atlanta to a touchdown.
“We all need to play better,” Ryan said. “And I think everybody, when you look in the mirror, you know that. Our guys up front know that. I know that … I think, across the board, everybody knows that.”
Atlanta had its sixth game of the season with fewer than 60 rushing yards when it finished with 57 against Tampa Bay. But in the win against New Orleans it rushed for a season-high 143 yards.
Just as the six-game losing streak wasn’t an indicator of how the Falcons would perform in the first game against the Saints, neither was the two-game winning streak an indicator of how they would perform against the Bucs.
And last week’s loss doesn’t mean Atlanta won’t pull another upset on Thanksgiving night even as nearly a touchdown underdog at home.
“It’s every week you’ve got to have your game right and battle for it,” Quinn said. “That’s the total challenge – mentally to focus right, physically making sure you’re ready to play with the energy and toughness that it takes to play that well. That’s why you have to tip your hat to New Orleans about playing this consistently well for a long time.
“That’s the thing we’re always chasing is that consistency. It’s not done overnight. I think it does speak to the league, but also speaks also to our division. I think we have tough division although some of the records may not indicate it as in years past because this is a tough division and always has been and as far as I’m concerned always will be.”