Saints-Falcons rematch carries high stakes, recent familarity, but preparation remains the same
A rivalry game between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons always carries weight.
This Christmas Eve showdown feels heavier than most.
Only one game removed from a heated, hard-fought thriller in Atlanta, the teams meet again in New Orleans with the NFC South title and the playoff hopes of both teams on the line.
Then there’s the revenge factor. The Saints haven’t beaten the Falcons since the final game of the 2015 season, a long stretch of three games without a win against their hated rival.
“This game means a lot, more so because it’s a division game, and more so because we haven’t beaten them in our last three opportunities to play them,” linebacker Craig Robertson said. “It’s another opportunity for me to get my first win against them since I’ve been a Saint.”
The nature of the first game adds to the stakes. Making its first appearance in Atlanta’s shiny new stadium, New Orleans slugged it out with Atlanta in a game filled with penalties, injuries and a showdown between Saints coach Sean Payton and Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.
With all of that as background, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was asked on Sunday if this meeting with Atlanta could be considered personal.
“You can label it that,” Rankins said. “We won’t harp on it publicly, but in our meeting rooms, we’re definitely going to put in all the time and effort needed to get this win.”
New Orleans plans to keep that preparation as normal as possible, even though the Saints saw the Falcons just one game ago.
“We’re just going to play Saints football,” wide receiver Michael Thomas said. “We’re going to have our team meeting on Wednesday, Coach is going to give us the keys to victory, and with those keys to victory we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
New Orleans was already making a mental note of its to-do list this week in the locker room after Sunday’s win against the New York Jets.
“We want to clean up our rush defense, because obviously, Atlanta’s going to want to run the ball,” Rankins said. “They’re going to watch this (Jets) game and see some things they want to attack. We’ve got to be able to counteract that.”
Even the coaching preparation will be the same, even though the Saints were poring over every available piece of Atlanta film two weeks ago.
Atlanta, Payton pointed out, is almost always a familiar opponent. The Falcons run the same defensive scheme and roughly the same offensive system New Orleans saw last year.
That won’t stop the Saints from burning the midnight oil in the film room.
“We’ve kind of turned the page this afternoon,” Payton said. “I’m sure every one of us is going to look at the game a week and a half ago. We’re still going to look at the cut-ups, and then the question would be, How far deep do you go in the cut-ups?”
By cut-ups, Payton means film tailored to show specific plays for the Falcons, like all of Atlanta’s plays on third downs, against safety blitzes or that resulted in touchdowns or sacks.
New Orleans has all of those cut-ups available, broken up both into Atlanta’s past five games and the entire season.
The fact that the Saints just watched all of those cut-ups really doesn’t change anything.
“I don’t know that the weekly to-do list, right at this moment today, is any different than it would have been six weeks ago, had we been playing them,” Payton said. “There’ll be certain elements to the game a week and a half ago that maybe you didn’t call that will be back in the playbook for this game.”
If there’s anything that alters the way the Saints prepare, it’s the fact that Atlanta was matched up against Tampa Bay on Monday night this week, not the relative rarity of playing the same time twice in three weeks.
The Monday night game means a full game’s worth of Atlanta snaps weren’t in those cut-ups when the Saints began their preparation.
“The uniqueness would be that we’re looking for them tonight, and they haven’t played their next game yet,” Payton said. “Just because they’re playing Monday Night Football.”