Posted: Friday September 24, 2010 2:47PM ; Updated: Friday September 24, 2010 6:32PM
Kerry J. Byrne
Kerry J. Byrne>COLD HARD FOOTBALL FACTS

Game of the Week: Saints-Falcons

Story Highlights

Brees torched Atlanta's D in '09, totaling five TD passes and a 117.6 passer rating

After shutting down mediocre offenses the first two weeks, Atlanta's D will struggle

The Saints miss Darren Sharper more than they will miss Reggie Bush

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Drew Brees
At age 31, Drew Brees is right in the sweet spot of an NFL quarterback's career.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's Atlanta at New Orleans game (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

Three Things You Should Care About

1. Drew Brees, not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, is the best quarterback in football. The Cold, Hard Football Facts brazenly predicted an outright victory by the underdog Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, despite the fact that the Colts were huge favorites.

One big reason the Saints were obvious favorites to us is because they, not the Colts, boasted the better QB. And, as you know, the team with the better quarterback usually wins.

Sure, Manning passed for more yards than Brees (4,500 to 4,388). But if big passing yards mattered, Houston's Matt Schaub (4,770) would have played in Super Bowl XLIV. Pro football doesn't work that way, though, at least not outside the realm of fantasy: you have to go all the way back to Johnny Unitas in 1959 to find a QB who led the NFL in passing yards and also led his team to a championship.

Brees, for his part, was better than Manning last year in all the efficiency stats that equate with success on the football field: completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD-INT ratio and passer rating. He topped the NFL last year in three of those indicators: touchdowns (34), passer rating (109.6) and a new NFL record for completion percentage (70.62).

The best quarterback in football is a huge advantage. It's an advantage the Saints enjoy over Matt Ryan and the Falcons this week and, if they're lucky, may enjoy over every opponent for the next couple of years. Brees is 31 years old -- right in that sweet spot of a quarterback's career in his late 20s and early 30s when he's mentally mastered the game and still has the physical tools to perform at his peak.

Falcons be warned: Brees was especially deadly at home last year, where he completed 73.2 percent of his passes with 9.2 YPA, 20 TD, 4 INT and a 120.1 passer rating.

And he was dominant in two wins over Atlanta: 76.7 percent, 8.3 YPA, 5 TD, 1 INT and a 117.6 passer rating.

2. The surprising Atlanta defense will get a cruel wake-up call. The Atlanta defense has surrendered just 22 points in two games (4th) and has been a pleasant little story here at the start of the 2010 season. It's No. 6 on our Defensive Hog Index, No. 2 in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency, and No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating.

(The Defensive Hog Index measures the strength of each defensive front, and it's an impressive gauge of success: teams better in DHI are a remarkable 25-8 in the postseason since we introduced the indicator in 2007, and the No. 1 team has twice won the Super Bowl (2007 Giants, 2008 Steelers). Bendability is our effort to quantify the bend-but-don't-break phenomenon and tells us how hard opponents must work to score points. Defensive Passer Rating is the single best way to measure the quality of a pass defense.)

The 2009 Saints, for example, were a prime example of the value of Defensive Passer Rating. Before Super Bowl XLIV, most analysts looked at a unit that ranked No. 26 in passing yards allowed and saw a weakness. We looked at a unit that ranked No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating and saw a big strength. You know what happened in the Super Bowl: the New Orleans pass defense made the biggest play of the game, when Tracy Porter returned a Manning pick for the game-sealing TD.

The Falcons enter Week 3 No. 1 in the NFL with a 52.9 Defensive Passer Rating (put another way, Atlanta's opposing quarterbacks have combined for a 52.9 passer rating). It's a number that bodes very well for a team that struggled to stop the pass last year (No. 22 in Defensive Passer Rating).

But it's also a number that should prove very misleading on Sunday, as the Falcons defense has enjoyed a favorable schedule: in Week 1 it faced the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger fill-in, Dennis Dixon, who was making just his second NFL start; in Week 2 it faced the Cardinals and quarterback Derek Anderson, a journeyman who had thrown just 12 TDs against 18 INT over the previous two seasons.

Facing the ultra-accurate Brees and the star-studded New Orleans offense will feel like a cold slap in the face by contrast. Look for the Falcons to tumble down the defensive indicators this week.

3. The Saints miss safety Darren Sharper more than they will miss Reggie Bush. Sharper was the biggest offseason acquisition by any team in 2009: the future Hall of Famer tied for the NFL lead with nine picks and was a major reason the Saints fielded one of the league's best pass defenses in 2009 (Sharper is currently tied with HOFer Ronnie Lott for sixth in career INTs with 63).

But Sharper is on the PUP list and will miss at least four more games. His absence was felt Monday night, when 49ers QB Alex Smith, who's struggled to produce in the NFL, torched the Saints for 275 yards (one of the highest totals of his career), including a game-tying drive in the last two minutes.

All-purpose running back Reggie Bush, meanwhile, went down with a broken leg against the 49ers. But there's no comparison between who's more important to the Saints. Sharper has quietly been one of the best ever and provided a huge boost to the team's defense in 2009; Bush is something of an afterthought in the New Orleans offense.

The former Heisman winner has scored 29 TDs in four-plus seasons and his production has steadily declined each year, from 1,307 yards from scrimmage as a rookie (2006) to 725 yards from scrimmage last year. Bush's Q rating is high, but in terms of production, he's really just your ordinary dual-purpose running back who gets a handful of touches per game.

The well-armed New Orleans offense should chug along fine without him, while the handicapped New Orleans defense eagerly awaits the return of big-time playmaker Sharper.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts

The Saints have dominated this NFC South rivalry in recent years, with a 7-1 record since 2006. Atlanta hasn't won a game in New Orleans since a 37-35 squeaker in 2002 -- ancient history in the Not For Long league.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, meanwhile, struggled badly in the Superdome last year (19-for-42, 289 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT), during a 35-27 loss. One of his picks was returned 48 yards for a score by Jabari Greer, for what proved to be the winning points.

It was part of a hugely disappointing sophomore season for Ryan. After impressive rookie numbers, his performance tumbled last year in almost every major indicator, including completion percentage (61.1 to 58.3), yards (3,440 to 2,916), interceptions (11 to 14), yards per attempt (7.9 to 6.5) and passer rating (87.7 to 80.9).

A big performance and a victory over the defending champs, in an arena where the Falcons rarely taste success, would go a long way toward righting the ship here in Year 3.

The Pick

The Saints have yet to click here in 2010 like they did in 2009. They scored just 14 points in a tough Week 1 win over the Vikings, and they held on for dear life in last week's 25-22 victory over what is probably no more than an average San Francisco team.

The Falcons are 1-1 with an overtime loss (15-9) to the Steelers and a runaway 41-7 win over the Cardinals last week. But neither team offered the type of challenge the Falcons will face in Brees, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston & Co.

The weak link for the Saints has been their ground game. They've averaged just 2.63 yards per attempt on the ground through the first two weeks. Only the Broncos have been worse (2.44 YPA). However, the Falcons are dead last against the run through two weeks, allowing opponents 5.93 YPA. So it's a matchup that works in favor of New Orleans.

Look for the stellar Saints to get their groove back on offense and continue their domination over their division rivals.

New Orleans 23, Atlanta 21

Jets-Dolphins Preview
Source: SI
SI.com's Don Banks breaks down the early season showdown between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.

ColdHardFootballFacts.com is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Email comments to siwriters@simail.com.

 
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