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A closer look at the most important Seahawks game of the weekend: Falcons-Saints

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

If the Seattle Seahawks lose to the San Francisco 49ers this weekend, then no other game matters. Ever. Period. The 49ers are 2-13, they have the worst passing offense and rushing defense in the NFL, they just ended their best player (Carlos Hyde)’s season, and they’re probably on the verge of firing the head coach and GM. I don’t care about division rivalries, if the Seahawks don’t win that game — a game they desperately need to win — it’s going to be the longest offseason of the Pete Carroll era.

In reality, the most important Seattle game of the weekend doesn’t even involve the Seahawks. Instead, the focus turns to the Atlanta Falcons, who host the New Orleans Saints with a playoff bye week on the line. Win and the Falcons have given themselves an automatic bid to the second round, lose and Seattle can get the much-needed break with a win over San Francisco.

In their first meeting this season, Atlanta won 45-32. Matt Ryan threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns, Devonta Freeman rushed for 152 yards on only 14 carries, Tevin Coleman rushed for three scores, while Julio Jones was surprisingly held to one catch for 16 yards on seven targets.

That dropped the Saints to 0-3 at the time, but they’ve won seven of 12 games since. New Orleans defense has also shown improvement since then, as that was their worst performance of the year in “Expected Points” allowed, though they had a really bad game in a 48-41 win over the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago. (The Saints went 4-0 vs the NFC West.)

As usual, the key will often be how Drew Brees does vs the Falcons defense and how Ryan does vs the New Orleans defense. Last season, Brees went 2-0 vs Atlanta in Dan Quinn’s first year as head coach, throwing for 634 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Earlier this season, he was 36-of-54 for 376 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. So in three games against Quinn, Brees is averaging about 350 yards, a little less than two touchdowns, and just one pick.

It’s to the point where we don’t even appreciate Brees anymore. He’s nearing his fifth 5,000-yard season, he has eight games this year with at least three touchdown passes, four with four, and there’s no game that ever feels comfortable for New Orleans’ opponents, regardless of how bad the Saints defense is.

Which is at least improving. A little.

New Orleans is 29th in defensive DVOA, 29th against the pass and 20th against the run. If the Saints can limit Atlanta’s running game, the Falcons are 0-3 when held under 60 yards rushing. Take note of Atlanta’s loss to the Seahawks, where Freeman and Coleman combined to rush 17 times for 50 yards. New Orleans doesn’t have a run defense like Seattle does, but it’s okay. They were really only burned once all year to ... Oh shit, the Falcons. Who rushed for 217 yards on them.

But it’ll still be hard for Atlanta to stop Brees. Quinn’s pass defense has the most attempts against it this year, they are 26th in passing yards allowed, 24th in pass defense DVOA and 27th in total defense DVOA. And most of that was with Desmond Trufant, their top corner who is now on IR. The Saints also have a solid running game with Mark Ingram quietly having his best season as a pro: 1,230 total yards, nine touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry. Brees must also protect the football: They’ve won their last six games when turning the ball over one or zero times. Atlanta is just 14th in takeaways, 20th in interceptions.

While the Falcons are at home, they are just 4-3 at the Georgia Dome this season. New Orleans is 3-4 on the road. But they won in Atlanta in Week 17 of last season and are certainly capable of winning what’s sure to be a high-scoring game with a lot on the line for the Falcons, and classic divisional rivalry pride for the Saints.

While the Atlanta Falcons are an obvious favorite for several reasons, this is still an extremely close game to call, in my opinion. Maybe I’m looking for hope because of how badly I want the Falcons to lose, but we’re talking about a game that we need Drew Brees to win, not Brock Osweiler, or Colin Kaepernick, or even Philip Rivers. Brees is as good of a player as the NFL has ever seen, the running game is really good, and the defense is bad but not as bad as it used to be.

My guess would lean towards a 40-37 Atlanta win, but that’s close enough to easily foresee how it could be a 45-41 Saints win. And that’ll be the best game for Seattle fans to watch this weekend.