Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are halfway home to a perfect regular season.
Ryan and the Falcons will start the second half of their campaign with an NFC South matchup in the Big Easy against the New Orleans Saints.
Atlanta is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history after taking care of business in a 19-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Matt Bryant made two of his four field goals in the fourth quarter of that one as the Falcons remained unbeaten and became just the 15th team to start a season with eight consecutive wins since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
"We are halfway through the season and I think everybody's focus is just to keep their head down, keep working hard and not worry about anything more than that," Ryan said. "I think that is one of the reasons we have been successful in the first half of the season. It's going to be important for us to keep doing that to try and be successful in the second half."
Ryan completed 24-of-34 passes against the Cowboys for 342 yards and ended with a passer rating of 102.8 for Atlanta, which improved to an imposing 29-0 when the Boston College product hits the century mark in passer rating (6-0 in 2012).
Michael Turner carried the ball 20 times for 102 yards and a touchdown for Atlanta, while Julio Jones caught five passes for 129 yards and Roddy White hauled in seven passes for 118 yards.
"Winning in the NFL is a week-to-week proposition," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I like the way our team played in all three phases."
New Orleans will try to ride its own star quarterback, Drew Brees, who is 10-2 against the Falcons since joining the Saints in 2006.
New Orleans may have saved its season on Monday night when Brees threw for 239 yards and a pair of scores as the Saints held off the sputtering Philadelphia Eagles, 28-13, at the Superdome.
Brees completed 21-of-27 passes and extended his NFL-record streak to 51 straight games with at least one touchdown pass.
"There are defining moments throughout a season," said Brees. "Big plays, big wins, that kind of bring you together and let you see a vision of what you can be, what you can accomplish. "This is the type of momentum we want going into the second half of the season."
Jimmy Graham hauled in eight passes for 72 yards and a score versus the Eagles, while Chris Ivory led the ground attack with 48 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries for the Saints, who have won 12 straight games in the month of November.
The win was also the first under interim head coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended for the season's first six games for his involvement in the team's bounty scandal before returning for last Sunday's 34-14 loss to Denver.
"I was proud of our football team to be able to improve on some things we really worked on and emphasized this week," Vitt said. "Make no mistake we have a long way to go."
The Falcons lead the all-time series between the two clubs 45-40 but the Saints have taken 10 of the past 12.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's tough to imagine the Saints' defense, which continues to play with defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma while they are appealing their bounty suspensions, slowing down perhaps the most well-rounded offense in all of football.
Ryan has a ton of weapons at his disposal and can beat you in a number of ways. White, who has the most receptions in the NFC since 2007 with 518, Jones, who will be aiming for a third consecutive game with five-plus catches and 120-plus yards, and Tony Gonzales are all top-tier threats in the passing game while Turner and scatback Jacquizz Rodgers can both be tough to deal with in the running game.
"He has an incredible skill set," Ryan said when talking about Jones. "He is big, strong and powerful. He has great top-end speed. He runs really good routes. His size is one of things that separate him from other people. There are some fast guys but rarely are there are guys as big and fast as he is."
Conversely, New Orleans, which relies heavily on ex-Falcon Curtis Lofton at linebacker, has been historically bad on defense this season, allowing at least 400 yards of offense in each of its first eight games, the longest such streak in the NFL since 1950. Overall, the Saints are allowing an average of 471.3 yards per game, over 50 more than the next-worst team and an NFC-worst 176.5 yards per game on the ground.
Opposition quarterbacks are averaging a 105.1 passer rating against the Saints and when Ryan records a passer rating like that, you might as well pack up the tent. Vitt can take solace in he fact that Ryan has amassed only a respectable 85.2 rating in his last three starts against NOLA, all losses.
Despite a rocky 0-4 start to the season and a 3-5 mark now Brees' play has never really waned. He's been exceptional as usual but has lacked a running game. Things picked up a bit for the Saints in that phase against Philadelphia. New Orleans entered that game ranked last in the NFL in rushing with an average of 72.6 yards per game but the trio of Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for 136 yards in that one.
New Orleans, which will be without the injured Darren Sproles (broken hand) again, hopes to build on that effort against a Falcons team allowing 127.5 rushing yards per game -- the second-most in the NFC behind the Saints.
Running the football consistently will only opens things up for Brees, who has a ton of weapons to utilize through the air just like Ryan. Marques Colston, who has six touchdowns in his last five games, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore are all big play threats on the outside and Graham can dominate the seam.
"We have a good problem (which) is we have all these backs," Brees said. "You want to get guys the touches when we can. We're excited to have them all."
Falcons Standout linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been ruled out for a second straight week with a sprained right ankle.
"We felt like Sean would be a real, real stretch these first two weeks and feel like he's making progress," said Smith. "He'll be looking to get back out here the first part of next week. We'll keep him in the training room the rest of this week."
Atlanta's first-round selection in the 2010 draft, Weatherspoon had started 23 straight games prior to missing last week's contest and leads the Falcons with 52 tackles this season. The 24-year-old also notched three sacks over the team's first seven contests.
Mike Peterson started in Weatherspoon's place against the Cowboys, with middle linebacker Akeem Dent remaining on the field in nickel packages.
"I have a lot of respect for (first-year Falcons defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan," Brees said when talking about the Falcons defense. "Mike Smith is really a great defensive coach as well. This seems to be a blend of their philosophies and kind of the best of both. You definitely can see some new twists to what they're doing. They're playing extremely well."
The Falcons have to be thinking about ending their season right here in New Orleans, which will host the Super Bowl. The Saints, meanwhile, are just hoping to keep their heads above water for another week.
It's pretty obvious New Orleans has to outscore you to win. The Saints are averaging 31.3 point in their three victories so getting to 30 is almost a necessary number for Brees and Co.
Atlanta, on the other hand, has been running away from the rest of the NFC South and a win here could go a long way in the effort toward sealing things. They Falcons haven't had to face the toughest competition, beating teams with a combined winning percentage of .369 so far but you can only knock down who is put in front of you and Atlanta figures to continue doing that in the Bayou.
"It's a big game," Brees said. "It feels like every time we play the Falcons it's such a big game, whether it be our standings or the meaning of the game (or) just the fact that we're divisional opponents (and) we always know it's going to be a 16-round bout. I think it's kind of obvious that there's an extreme competitiveness on both sides knowing what type of game this will be."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 28, Saints 24