The Saints lost their first two games of the season, but then went on a major roll.
They won eight consecutive games before losing to the upstart Los Angles Rams on Nov. 26. They bounced back with a win over Carolina on Sunday and have the lead in the NFC South with four games to play.
The Saints (9-3) play the Falcons (7-5) at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We started off the season slow, and we played two pretty good teams, looking back now, in Minnesota and New England,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We didn’t play very well on either side of the ball. After that second loss, we went on the road for two games at Carolina and then at London versus Miami. We all felt, to a man, that was going to be an important two-game road trip for this team.”
The Saints beat Carolina (34-13) and Miami (20-0) to get things turned around. They solved some of their issues on defense, and the offense started to rely more heavily on its rushing attack.
“Fortunately, we played a better in the game against Carolina and fortunately got the takeaways that you’re always hoping to get,” Payton said. “Had some balance and then flew right from that game over to London and got ready to play Miami.”
The Saints’ rookie class appears to be special, much like the Falcons’ 2016 class that included safety Keanu Neal, and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, all starters as rookies.
“We have a lot of young players on the roster,” Payton said. “A lot of young first-year starters when you start looking at whether it’s the corner (Marshon) Lattimore, (right tackle Ryan) Ramczyk and (safety) Marcus Williams has been starting. (Linebacker Alex) Anzalone was starting prior to his injury and then (Alvin) Kamara. (Defensive end) Trey Hendrickson is playing.
“So, we felt it was an important draft for this team. We added some free agents. Look, there are a lot of things we’ve got to improve on and yet we’ve played a little bit better complimentary football where you’re looking at either time of possession or kind of each week trying to figure out how to win that game.”
Kamara, the former Norcross High standout and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s player of the year in 2012, was drafted in the third round.
He’s provided a major spark to the offense. He’s rushed for 606 yards and seven touchdowns and added 59 catches for 614 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Kamara and Mark Ingram have provided the Saints with a rushing attack.
“He’s just helped the offense as a whole,” Campbell said. “Drew (Brees) isn’t out there having to throw the ball 40, 50 times a game. It just helps to have a really good stable of backs that kind of takes the pressure off of him. They’ve just become a more complete offense really.”
While the Saints are relying on Ingram and Kamara, Brees is still lethal. He’s completed 291 of 407 passes for 3,298 yards for 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a passer rating of 104.2.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas is his top target and leading receiver, with 75 catches for 875 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think he’s playing really well right now,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of Brees. “I know they are running the football well, too. I know that helps when you’ve got a good running game going, it’s huge.”
The Saints’ defense is led by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 10 sacks. Also, Sheldon Rankins, who plays next to Jordan at tackle, is having a fine season.
Jordan and Rankins will go against Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder and right guard Wes Schweitzer.
“Yeah, I know where they are at,” Ryan said, pointing to his right. “They are doing a good job. Jordan has been a good player for a long time. Their defensive front four has had a really good year. The front seven in general has done a really good job. Dennis Allen has done a nice job of kind of changing fronts and giving you different looks. They are aggressive.”
Ben Garland is set to start at left guard for the Falcons. Andy Levitre has a triceps injury and is out for the game.
Tyeler Davison (6-2, 309) started at right defensive tackle for the Saints last week and will face Garland.
“It’s great to be able to have the opportunity to go in and play,” Garland said.