John: There's a good Thursday night game on tap tonight as the New Orleans Saints try to keep their playoff hopes alive when they head to Atlanta to meet up with the NFC leading Falcons.

If all goes according to plan, this should be an entertaining game to watch. Not a lot of the Thursday games have been great, so that's something positive to look forward to regarding tonight's matchup.

As always I'm joined by Bret Clev and Mike Maloney to break down tonight's game. 

Standings after Week 12 (Straight Up)

Mike 117-58-1 .669 (Last week 10-6)

John 116-59-1 .663 (10-6)

Bret 113-62-1 .656 (10-6)

We didn't pick the same in every game. It just turned out that way.

New Orleans (5-6) at Atlanta (10-1) 8:20 PM

Bret: Finally a solid Thursday night game! (And the only one left.) 

These two teams are pretty clearly built to play each other - and their stats are damn near identical in a lot of ways. (Pass/Rush ratio on offense, defensive points per play, completion percentage, etc.) 

A big part of what New Orleans did to beat Atlanta earlier in the year was to do something different - a sustained ground attack - and I think they'll need to do that to be successful again this week. With Peria Jerry likely out again this week, I expect New Orleans to go back to that well once again - then to pass off of it.  

Atlanta's flaw offensively right now is their inability to change their offensive game plan in the same way. Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram are average backs in the NFL - at this point Turner is worse (and that's hard for me to say as an NIU alum.) He's unable to sustain a drive the way the New Orleans backs can. 

I expect that to be the difference in the second installment of this Ravens/Steelers level 'we're built to play each other' type of game. New Orleans runs for 140 combined yards. Brees to Graham for 2 TDs. Atlanta falls just short once again. New Orleans 28 Atlanta 27

(And I'll take New Orleans +3 as a best bet....though a savvy bettor such as myself got them on Sunday night got them at +3.5.) 

Mike: Tough stretch of games for the Saints here, vs SF, @ ATL, @ NYG, and vs TB. Theoretically they probably need to win their last five games to get into the playoffs, although they might be able to do 9-7 and lose one more game depending on how things play out.  Having Seattle, Tampa and Minnesota all lose last week certainly helped.  I'm not sure this one will be playing out much differently from the last Falcons/Saints match up a couple weeks ago.  Atlanta really had trouble running the ball, the Saints were surprisingly effective in that regard, and the result was both teams putting up 450 yards of offense and scoring a combined 58 points. 

I wouldn't really expect the Falcons to be much better this time on the ground, and while the Saints might not average 5.1 yards per carry this game, Drew Brees put up great numbers (21-32, 298 yards and 3 TDs), and on a short week I expect that to possibly work in favor of the long-time veteran QB who is very good at adjusting as the game goes on.  The Falcons don't have a great home field advantage, especially not against another dome team.  Both teams are going to have to figure out what to do against the tight ends, as last game Jimmy Graham had 7 receptions on 8 targets for 146 yards and 2 TDs, while Tony Gonzalez had 11 catches on 15 targets for 122 yards and 2 TDs. 

I don't feel super confident about either team, the Falcons are good but not as good as their 10-1 record, the Saints have been on a nice run and playing better the last couple months, but they're still a pretty flawed team and I have concerns that their ground performance against the Falcons was a bit of a fluke.  I'm going to go with the Saints in a close one because it's a short week and I feel more comfortable with Drew Brees than I do Matt Ryan.  New Orleans 28 Atlanta 26 

John: You guys are both taking the 5-6 road team to beat the 10-1 home team? And the line is only three points? I know the Saints beat them 31-27 in week 10 after the Falcons had a 10-0 lead, but to me the Falcons are the better team. I'm picking them. 

I think this is a huge game for the Falcons because they know that even though they're likely to win their division and get a first round bye in the playoffs, they need to win a game like this. The big two stats that jump out at me is that the Falcons are 31-4 at home with Matt Ryan at QB. Two of his losses were against the Saints in 2010 and 2011. If he's going to be considered a truly elite quarterback he needs to lead his team to a victory against the Saints. 

I'm not here to say Matt Ryan is the best QB in the NFL. He's not. But he's close. I think one of the problems the Falcons offense has faced is that when they get a lead on a team they don't keep piling the points on. If you watch the Patriots, they get a lead and they keep going. They don't stop. Even when they're up 21 points they still throw the ball. I think with the Falcons sometimes they get away from their game plan once they have the lead and that allows teams to get back into games against them. This week, against a perpetually bad Saints defense, I think the Falcons will keep the pressure on all game long. 

I've admired the heart shown by the Saints since their 0-4 start, but the discussion of them as a playoff team needs to stop. Maybe next year they'll get back there. It's going to be too hard for that to happen now. When your defense is 30th against the pass and 32nd against a run your fate has already been sealed. You have issues there and everybody knows it. For all the points that Drew Brees can put up with that offense, it's the defense that is constantly letting them down. 

The margin of victory for the Falcons at home this year has been 6 (Den), 2 (Car), 3 (Oak), 6 (Dal) and 4 (Ari). The numbers don't lie. They haven't won by more than a touchdown at home this year. That's dangerous. It means their home field advantage is good for them, but it's not dominant for them. That needs to change because if they want to be considered a Super Bowl contender they need to step on the throats of their opponents when they're in a vulnerable position. 

That's why I'm going Falcons. Because I think they know how important this is for them. I think they're running the ball better with Jacquizz Rodgers getting more touches in open space, Julio Jones is healthy again and that allows Roddy White to get open even more. You know they've got old reliable Tony Gonzalez there too. As long as the defense can keep the Saints under 30, I think the Falcons should win this game. 

If they don’t win this game in a convincing manner then I'll have my doubts about them heading into the playoffs. Great teams need dominant wins at home. This needs to be that dominant win for them. I think a two touchdown victory is dominant enough. Falcons 38-24 

I'm the only one picking the Falcons. That surprises me a bit. But that's why they need a game like this. It will make people believe in them more than they currently do.

Thanks for reading. We'll be back on Friday for the rest of this week's games. 

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Mike: @Mtmaloney

John: @TJRSports and @johnreport

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