Want proof that sportsbooks expect a huge bounce-back season this year for Atlanta after a 4-12 mark in 2013? The Falcons are 1.5-point home favorites on NFL odds against a New Orleans Saints team that is the favorite to win the NFC South Division.
Falcons' Smith On The Hot Seat?
The Falcons have been one of the NFL's most stable organizations since hiring Thomas Dimitroff as their general manager before the 2008 season. He hired a relatively unknown coach named Mike Smith, and drafted Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the '08 draft. Atlanta won at least nine games every year since then, before last season's collapse. I wouldn't say Smith was on the hot seat after last year, but it did take a personal assurance from owner Arthur Blank for him to feel comfortable. Ditto for Dimitroff, a two-time NFL Executive of the Year. Still, Blank isn't likely to put up with another season like last year's. Blank wants to make sure this team has buzz in the next few years, so that he can fill the team's new stadium when it opens in 2017.
While Ryan is clearly the team's most important player, don't rule out how vital receiver Julio Jones is. Yes, the Falcons were only 1-4 with him in the lineup last year before he suffered a season-ending injury in a Week 5 loss to the Jets on a Monday night. All four defeats came down to the final minute, including a Week 1 23-17 defeat in New Orleans. Jones was on pace for a monster season with 41 catches for 580 yards, and two scores. Atlanta wasn't really the same after his loss. Yes, it won the next game against Tampa Bay, but followed that with a five-game skid, four of which were by at least 13 points.
No coach outside of Bill Belichick likely has more job security than New Orleans' Sean Payton, who appears totally in synch with quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints have won at least 11 games in Payton's past four seasons on the sideline; he (of course) missed the 2012 campaign due to suspension. New Orleans also hasn't lost a home game under Payton since the 2010 season. Brees has a new toy to play with this season in rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, the team's first-round pick out of Oregon State. The Saints think he can replace the production of Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, both now elsewhere.
"There's no doubt he's a guy who has the ability to be a big contributor for us on offense this year," Brees said recently.
The Saints traded their first-round pick (No. 27) and third-round selection (No. 91) to Arizona to move up seven spots to select Cooks, who is a burner. He won the 2013 Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football, catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. Cooks is +1000 at sportsbooks to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
New Orleans swept Atlanta last year, although it could have gone the other direction. The most recent meeting was Week 12 on a Thursday night short week at the Georgia Dome. The Saints won 17-13 as 7.5-point favorites on NFL odds. That was Atlanta's season-high fifth straight loss and clinched the Falcons' first losing season since 2007. Brees completed 23 of 33 for 278 yard and two scores. Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 100 yards and a 44-yard TD. Ryan was 30-for-39 for 292 yards but no touchdowns and was sacked five times. The Falcons were scoreless after Matt Bryant cut the New Orleans lead to 14-13 with 2:41 left in the first half. Brees is 13-4 in his career against Atlanta. Those are his most wins against any team.
NFL free picks: Atlanta -1.5 and the 'under' 52 points on NFL odds. The Falcons for some reason usually know how to defend against Brees. The 'under' is 5-0 in the last 5 meetings in Atlanta. The home team has covered the past five meetings.