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Saints, Falcons clash in critical division matchup

It wasn't exactly an epiphany, but the proof is in the results. As the Atlanta Falcons kept winning week after week in 2016 and advanced to the Super Bowl with a quick-strike offense and a speed-demon defense, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton certainly was paying attention.

Payton looked across the line at the Falcons' defense -- deer-footed athletes at every position-- and probably decided the Saints, to avoid being swept by the Falcons as they were in 2016, would have to change course in order to compete for an NFC South title.

That means, if you can't outrun them, run them over.

The 9-3 Saints will travel to Atlanta on Thursday night for a critical divisional test against the 7-5 Falcons -- the first of two games against Atlanta in three weeks -- and the Saints have made the commitment to pound the run to control the clock and remain efficient, allowing Drew Brees to throw when he wants to rather than when he has to.

The backfield tandem of Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara has been virtually unstoppable this year, and the two backs accounted for 248 yards from scrimmage in a 31-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Look for the Saints to try to establish the north-south running game again on Thursday night.

"They can run," Payton said of Dan Quinn's defense. "I think that's the one thing on film. They're fast at all the positions. I think (safety Keanu) Neal has played extremely well. I think they rush the passer very well, and if you get into the third down, (you see) a lot of the things that we saw happen in Seattle (when Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator)."

Ingram did not practice Tuesday because of a toe injury, but he is expected to play against the Falcons. Against an eight-man front last Sunday, Ingram made one man miss at the line of scrimmage and raced 72 yards for the second-longest rushing play of his career.

Ingram, who has gained 922 yards and scored nine touchdowns on 180 carries, said he and Kamara, a third-round draft pick out of Tennessee, are simply doing what they are paid to do -- give the 2017 Saints more balance so that every game does not rise and fall on Brees' right shoulder.

"I felt like it was a possibility if we ran the ball," Ingram said. "I just know the offense is wide open, and it puts us in a primary position to make plays. It's just crazy how it's happening this year. I've been preparing well and the offensive line, receivers, tight ends, fullback (have as well). I still want to be in there more and carry the ball more, but it's working and there's enough touches for both of us."

Kamara has scored in six consecutive games and ranks third in the NFL among running backs with 59 catches. The rookie has 1,220 total yards and 11 touchdowns and is averaging 8.4 yards per touch.

Kamara's biggest play last week was converting a fourth-and-goal gamble from the Carolina 2 into a touchdown by shedding a big hit from linebacker Shaq Thompson -- no easy feat -- to score standing up on the first series of the game.

"It was a (heck) of a run by Alvin Kamara," Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. "Nine times out of 10, if it had been anyone else, they would have gone down. His balance is amazing. That's really what's separating him from a lot of different running backs."

"The thing that has really jumped out to me -- it's his balance," Quinn added. "I don't know how many missed tackles you can track on a player, but I'd bet he'd have one of the highest (numbers) out there."

The Saints also may get rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore back from a sprained ankle, which would bolster their coverage against Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. The Saints are yielding just 17.9 points in winning nine of their last 10 games.

A 14-9 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings last week snapped the Falcons' three-game winning streak. The Falcons averaged 27 points in the three wins but were held to three field goals by the Vikings' stout defense.

Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is a difference maker like Lattimore, has been cleared from his concussion symptoms and should play against the Saints. But starting left guard Andy Levitre has a partially torn triceps and may not play.

"We have to turn the page fast to get to New Orleans," Quinn said. "We're right back into our division. It's all there for us, we know that."

The Falcons converted only 1-of-10 third downs against Minnesota, and many of them were long-yardage situations, which skewed the odds for success, Quinn said.

"My bigger question is how the (heck) did we get into third-and-12 and third-and-17 and third-and-13," Quinn said.

The Falcons swept the Saints last year, winning 45-32 in New Orleans and 38-32 at home.

Updated December 5, 2017

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