Falcons vs. Saints -- Week 10

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans (turf, indoors) 

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX) 

Spread: Falcons by 2.5 

Records: Falcons (Overall: 8-0; NFC South: 1-0); Saints (Overall: 3-5; NFC South: 1-1) 

Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Dec. 26, 2011: Saints 45, Falcons 16; Nov. 13, 2011: Saints 26, Falcons 23 (OT). Series Record: Falcons have edge, 45-40. Saints have won three straight. 

What matters: The Saints are on the move, having won three of their last four games. If they’re going to make a run at the wild card slot, they’ll likely need a win at home to preserve their chances. Four of the Saints’ next five games are against the Falcons, Giants, and 49ers, making Sunday’s home game crucial. Atlanta needs to understand New Orleans’ urgency. The game is already a highly emotional contest between two division rivals, but Matt Ryan needs to strike quickly to take the Saints fans out of the game. Since 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first possessions (2.8 per game) than any other team in the NFL. The Saints, coincidentally, are second with 2.6 ppg. This season, Atlanta has 27 points on their opening possessions, which leads the NFL. 

Who matters: At some point, “Good enough,” as Matt Ryan described last Sunday’s 19-13 win over Dallas, isn’t going to cut it for the Falcons. The Saints are dead last in the NFL in defense, allowing 471 ypg, so Ryan shouldn’t have trouble finding the end zone like he did last weekend vs. the Cowboys. Against New Orleans, which averages 27.2 ppg, it’s the Falcons defense that will be spotlighted. Saints RB Darren Sproles, always a dangerous threat out of the backfield on screen passes, is questionable for Sunday’s game, putting even more pressure on Drew Brees and the aerial attack. The Falcons defensive tackles Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux are crucial to eating up space, engaging their guards, and swatting passes down. Defensive ends John Abraham (seven sacks, three forced fumbles) and Kroy Biermann (two sacks) have disguised their blitzes extremely well and Sunday’s game will come down to winning the line of scrimmage. 

Key matchups: S William Moore and LB Stephen Nicholas will try to contain Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who, at 6-7, is as dangerous a threat in the redzone as anyone in the league. Three of his five touchdown catches have been within six yards of the goal line and he can outleap nearly any cover man. Nicholas kept Dallas TE Jason Witten in check last Sunday and will need to play an ever bigger role in pass coverage with starting LB Sean Weatherspoon out for a second straight week due to an ankle injury. …S Roman Harper (58 tackles) is one of the leaders on the Saints defense and aside from his responsibilities guarding Tony Gonzalez, he’ll need to delegate protection against wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. As is the case every week, the defense needs to decide whether to load up the box and limit RB Michael Turner’s yards or take their chances with the Falcons potent passing game. If the Saints choose the former, LB Curtis Lofton, who spent four years with the Falcons before signing as a free agent with the Saints this offseason, will show what the Falcons let walk. 

Injuries of note: Coach Mike Smith declared Weatherspoon, the team’s leading tackler, out for Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Second-year linebacker Akeem Dent will replace Weatherspoon in the Falcons nickel sets (which the team plays significantly more of) while veteran defender Mike Peterson will play in the base package with three linebackers. A number of other Falcons players such as Asante Samuel (hip), DT Peria Jerry (knee), and LT Sam Baker (ankle) were limited in practice this week but should play. 

Inside stuff: Lofton spent the first four years of his career with Atlanta where he recorded nearly 500 tackles, seven forced fumbles, and three interceptions. While his knowledge of the Falcons personnel is thorough, the fact that Atlanta signed new offensive (Dirk Koetter) and defensive (Mike Nolan) coordinators this offseason should limit the information he’s able to provide to the Saints. One reason he was let go was because Nolan’s defense typically hinges on two OLB and Lofton thrived as a MLB. The Falcons also felt Dent could step into his role. 

Connections: Aside from Lofton, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff was a scout for the Cleveland Browns in 2000 while current Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was also on staff. 

Bulletin board quote: The Falcons and Saints don’t need any extra fuel to this rivalry. New Orleans would love nothing more than to knock the Falcons off their perfect pedestal while Atlanta would love to jeopardize the Saints’ slim hopes of a playoff run. They are natural rivals due to proximity but also divisional rivals as they both became tough, competitive teams within the last five years. 

As Lofton was leaving, he took one final shot at the Falcons organization, which they likely haven’t forgotten. He told the Times Picayune, “I wanted to go to a team that, No. 1, had a chance to win a Super Bowl, had true fans, a great defensive coordinator.” At 8-0 with a defense playing above expectations, the Falcons could feed off that comment for days. 

Stats you should know: 1,337. White and Jones combined yardage for the season, the second-best mark of any tandem in the NFL. Only Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos have more yards (1,339). Last weekend vs. Dallas marked the third time that White and Jones had each gone over 100 receiving yards in a game.

Looking ahead: The Falcons host Arizona next weekend while the Saints travel to Oakland. 

Prediction: Falcons 30, Saints 27

For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.