by Frank Martin
The first half of the season has proven to represent a changing of the guard in the NFC South, but the surging New Orleans Saints will try to say something about that when they host the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The Falcons - the last remaining unbeaten team in the league - have solidified their status as the division front-runner, but the Saints are trying to work their way back into the playoff picture. New Orleans has won three of its past four games after starting the season with four straight losses.
Atlanta is 8-0 for the first time in franchise history and is just the 15th team to start 8-0 since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The Saints have won 10 of the past 12 meetings against the Falcons, which is a big reason they've won the NFC South in two of the past three seasons and three of the past six. That includes a 45-16 blowout in the most recent contest on Dec. 26, 2011, in New Orleans, a game in which Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season passing mark.
Atlanta Falcons (8-0): The Falcons have won five games this season by seven points or less, and they are 27-10 in games decided by one score during coach Mike Smith's tenure. The offense had its lowest-scoring output of the season in last week's 19-13 home win against Dallas, and Atlanta might need more with the defense getting a stern test from the Saints, especially with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon missing a second consecutive game with a sprained right ankle.
New Orleans Saints (3-5): New Orleans' defense has been dreadful, ranking last in the league in total yards allowed. The Saints have surrendered at least 421 total yards in every game. The porous pass defense will have its hands full against quarterback Matt Ryan and a loaded receiving corps that includes Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. The Saints' offense has not been as prolific as in past years, and running back Darren Sproles is out at least four weeks after hand surgery.
1. Atlanta is 29-0 when QB Matt Ryan starts and has a rating of 100 or higher, and the team is 15-0 when he has at least three touchdown passes.
2. Brees, who has a passing touchdown in an NFL-record 51 consecutive games, has passed for 300 yards in eight of 12 meetings vs. Atlanta since joining the Saints.
3. Gonzalez needs one touchdown reception to become the first tight end and eighth player in history with 100.
NFL Football Prediction: Saints 26, Falcons 23.
atlanta falcons - dan marinos - darren sproles - drew brees - julio jones - matt ryan - matt ryan - mike smith - new orleans saints - roddy white