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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:57 PM

Time is running out if the New Orleans Saints want to surge into the NFL playoffs as a Wildcard surprise. We’ve reached the point in the season where sports bettors must pay special attention to playoff motivation as they make their pro selections. Sitting at 5-6 heading into Thursday’s game with Atlanta (which will be nationally televised by NFL Network), there’s no margin for error for the Saints!

NFC DIVISION LEADERS

East: NY Giants 7-4

North: Chicago 8-3

South: Atlanta 10-1

West: San Francisco 8-2-1

NFC WILDCARD CONTENDERS (only 2 make it)

Green Bay 7-4 (5-3 in the NFC)

Seattle 6-5 (4-4 in the NFC)

Minnesota 6-5 (4-4 in the NFC)

Tampa Bay 6-5 (3-5 in the NFC)

Washington 5-6 (5-4 in the NFC)

Dallas 5-6 (4-5 in the NFC)

New Orleans 5-6 (3-4 in the NFC)

With conference records as a tie-breaker, New Orleans is currently sitting SEVENTH in the race for the two spots. A loss to Atlanta would put them at 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the NFC…meaning they’d have to win out for 9-7 and that STILL probably wouldn’t be good enough! A win moves them to .500 for the year and in the tie-breaker, with a chance to knock off Tampa Bay and Dallas in December head-to-head matchups.

The good news for New Orleans…they’re the only team to beat Atlanta this year! Having Drew Brees throwing passes gives the Saints a fighting chance against anyone. Let’s see if our key indicator stats are hinting at a poinstread upset in Thursday’s big TV game…

 

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at ATLANTA FALCONS (8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network)

Las Vegas Spread: Atlanta by 3.5, total of 56

The market says Atlanta is a bit better, because home field advantage is worth three points all by itself. But, that’s actually a very small spread for a matchup of a 10-1 team vs. a 5-6 team. The Saints are getting a lot of market respect with those numbers. And, you can tell Vegas is expecting another shootout. The first meeting a few weeks ago ended 31-27…with squandered opportunities for additional points.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

New Orleans: 5-6 (18th ranked schedule)

Atlanta: 10-1 (28th ranked schedule)

This is part of the reason Atlanta is only being credited for a half point more than home field. The Falcons have played one of the easiest schedules in the league. They haven’t faced any of the other NFC divisional leaders. They did face Denver of the AFC, and won a home game by six points. There’s a general consensus that Atlanta would be more like a 7-4 or an 8-3 team against a more representative schedule. That being said, New Orleans played a representative schedule and is still below .500.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

New Orleans: +2

Atlanta: +3

No relevant differences here. Both quarterbacks have generally avoided implosions with a few notable exceptions (like when Matt Ryan of Atlanta threw 5 interceptions vs. Arizona!). But, neither team is exactly embarrassing opponents with takeaways either. Frankly, given the quality of these quarterbacks, we would have expected higher differentials. You have to play catchup against these teams…that should lead to differentials further awayf rom zero this deep into the season.

OFFENSIVE STATS

New Orleans: 381.9 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play

Atlanta: 385.9 yards-per-game on 5.9 yards-per-play

Once again, basically even numbers. These offenses are basically clones in terms of production. Maybe Drew Brees carries a slightly bigger load on his shoulders than Matt Ryan does. Both teams are executing at an elite level in both of those categories.

DEFENSIVE STATS

New Orleans: 454.8 yards-per-game on 6.5 yards-per-play

Atlanta: 344.9 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

This is the area that explains the differences in the standings. The New Orleans defense has been horrible all season. Well they were truly abysmal in the first half of the season and slightly better lately. But, that’s relative because San Francisco still gained 6.7 yards-per-play against the Saints last week, and Atlanta gained 6.4 three weeks ago. If you’re thinking of making a case for the home favorite Thursday Night, this would be your point of emphasis. Atlanta may be better than just a half point better on a neutral field…and it’s because they play much better defense.

LAST WEEK’S BOXSCORES

SAN FRANCISCO 31, NEW ORLEANS 21

Total Yardage: San Francisco 375, New Orleans 290

Rushing Yards: San Francisco 144, New Orleans 59

Passing Stats: San Francisco 16-25-1-231, New Orleans 26-41-2-231

Turnovers: San Francisco 1, New Orleans 2

Third Downs: San Francisco 46%, New Orleans 27%

Vegas Line: San Francisco by 1, total of 50

The reason that Thursday’s game in Atlanta was an ABSOLUTE must-have is because New Orleans failed to get the job done Sunday against San Francisco. Frankly, it was a game that pretty much confirmed that the Saints aren’t playoff caliber. They were dominated at the point of attack, intimidated all over the field, and shut down for all but a couple of drives by a team that’s thinking about a championship. Maybe the Saints can sneak in anyway because the sixth and final NFC playoff team is likely to be a borderline squad. If you put up THOSE numbers…at home…in a game near pick-em…against an inexperienced opposing quarterback…then your die has largely been cast.

ATLANTA 24, TAMPA BAY 23

Total Yardage: Atlanta 424, Tampa Bay 326

Rushing Yards: Atlanta 79, Tampa Bay 50

Passing Stats: Atlanta 26-32-1-345, Tampa Bay 20-31-0-276

Turnovers: Atlanta 2, Tampa Bay 0

Third Downs: Atlanta 62%, Tampa Bay 40%

Vegas Line: Pick-em, total of 51

There’s a lot to love about that boxscore outside of the turnover category. And, it’s a negative that Atlanta couldn’t reach 100 yards on the ground against a defense that’s been pretty soft in recent weeks. That’s going to matter in the playoffs more than it might over the next month. Atlanta is the best team in its division, and is a favorite to earn a first round bye with their 10-1 start and a New Orleans-Carolina-NYG-Detroit-Tampa Bay finish. Not a gift schedule by any means…but it’s a competitive year in the NFC and nobody has a gift schedule down the stretch.

BEST EXPECTATION

If you’re focused on the motivation factor…then New Orleans will get a serious look because they must have this game and Atlanta has basically clinched its playoff spot already thanks to a four-game lead in the NFC South with five to go. If you’re focused on talent, production, and line value…then it’s possible to make the case for Atlanta. They should have won at New Orleans. They are the better team. They have a much better defense and it’s hard for soft defenses to beat good teams on the road (remember when New Orleans lost at Denver 34-14 with a 530-252 yardage disadvantage?).

New Orleans can win this game. Atlanta can win by double digits if the Saints can’t stop them and cough up the ball trying to play catch up. A final score 10 points away from the Vegas spread (or more) wouldn’t be a surprise.

JIM HURLEY has been studying this matchup since the first meeting, then redoubling his efforts once last Sunday’s results were in the books. We have a lot to play with here in terms of series history, common opponents, and on-site information from our sources. Maybe it’s a side…maybe it’s a total…but you’re going to get a STRONG play from the NETWORK handicapping juggernaut in the first big football game of the new week!

You can purchase Thursday’s GAME OF THE YEAR slate (including Louisville-Rutgers for the Big East championship) right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. This is a great week to sign up because of all the conference championship games…and the exploding basketball schedule as well.

Back with you tomorrow to preview Friday Night’s UCLA-Stanford battle for the Pac 12 crown (did UCLA tank last week so they wouldn’t have to play Oregon?). Then we’ll look at Alabama-Georgia Saturday in the SEC battle that will send the winner to the BCS Championship game to face Notre Dame.

When championships are on the line, you need WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!

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