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Thursday Night Preview: The NFC South Could Be Decided in Atlanta

Drew Brees and the Saints could put themselves in a prime spot to take the division with a big road victory Thursday night. Do they have enough to walk into Atlanta and get it done?

We have been treated to some awesome Thursday night games in 2017, and this could be the icing on the cake, as two NFC South foes battle for division supremacy.

New Orleans has shot up our current power rankings, ranking third overall, and while they sit two games behind the Saints, the Atlanta Falcons rank pretty highly as well, sitting 13th, per our models.

Can the Falcons fight their way back into the divisional picture, or are the Saints going to wrap this thing up? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

Thanks to two strong rushing attacks, veterans Drew Brees and Matt Ryan haven't posted their typically gaudy statistics but have still performed at a very high level this season.

Leading the charge for the visitors is Brees, who ranks second in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.27) among the 40 quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs this season. In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the rate at which his drop backs result in positive NEP -- Brees ranks fourth (51.06%). He's been strong this season, even though he is on pace for 4,397 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, which would be his lowest marks since the 2005 season.

Ryan, meanwhile, is faring worse but is still operating at a very high level. In 2017, among the same group of quarterbacks, the Atlanta signal caller clocks in eighth in Passing NEP per drop back (0.19), but actually leads the league in Passing Success Rate (52.46%). Ryan's 16 passing scores are a ways off from last year's 38 passing touchdowns, but he clearly has been a strong weapon from an advanced metrics perspective.

Running Back Play

This game could feature a ton of offensive fireworks, and fantastic running back play could be at the center of it.

The Saints feature a one-two punch in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara that has blown away the NFL this season. Among the 46 running backs with 70 carries or more, Kamara has recorded a league-best Rushing NEP per carry of 0.42. His buddy in the backfield, Ingram, in his 180 carries, clocks in at 10th in Rushing NEP per play with a mark of 0.03. Combining for 20 offensive touchdowns, these two will severely test the Falcons defense. Keep an eye out on Ingram's status -- he's been officially listed as questionable this week while missing some practice time.

After missing time with a concussion, Devonta Freeman returned, and he hasn't been too shabby this season, either. On 128 rushing attempts, Freeman ranks fifth-best in Rushing NEP per play (0.07). The fourth-year man recorded 81 total yards last week against a tough Minnesota Vikings defense in his return to game action.

Defensive Matchup

Part of the reason for such a high over/under is that this tilt features two defenses that haven't fared the best in 2017. New Orleans has improved from last season, ranking 15th per our schedule-adjusted numbers in overall defense, while the Falcons have struggled, checking in at 21st.

New Orleans has been fantastic against the pass, sitting fifth, but have been gashed by the run, ranking an abysmal 30th. The Falcons have also shown similar declining splits, ranking 17th against the pass and 29th against the run.

Using Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate -- which displays sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent -- both teams have gotten after the passer pretty well. New Orleans has sacked opposing passers 33 times on their way to an an adjusted sack rate of 8.5%, which ranks fourth in the league. Atlanta has also been strong, racking up 32 sacks, good for an adjusted sack rate of 6.8%, which ranks 14th in the league.

Historical Comparisons

According to our models, there is only one contest that correlates with this game greater than 90% of the time. That was an October 2007 matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Going back in the memory bank, this featured two teams that were a combined 9-1 heading into this game. Normally featuring a heavy passing attack with Peyton Manning at the helm, the Colts routed Jacksonville on the road through the ground game, piling up 141 rushing yards and 2 scores on their way to an easy 29-7 win.

In tonight's matchup -- going strictly by historical comps -- the 2017 Saints will play the role of the 2007 Colts, meaning we would see a victory for the road team and the under hitting.

Game Projection

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