New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons preview: Five key matchups

Atlanta Falcons

A huge divisional tilt in the NFC South kicks off Week 13 of the 2012 NFL season. The Atlanta Falcons can end the New Orleans Saints' slim playoff hopes with a win.

The Saints have to win to keep those faint hopes alive for another week. They'll feel confident having put the only blemish on the Falcons' record this season.

The Falcons will certainly be motivated to avenge that Week 10 reverse. They are winless in their last three contests against the Saints.

These are the five key matchups that will decide what should be an epic encounter.

Jonathan Vilma vs. Tony Gonzalez

Jonathan Vilma recently made his return from the infamous "bountygate" suspensions. As much as he'll enjoy being back, Vilma won't be too pleased to be covering veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.

The 36-year-old future hall of famer has been exceptional this season. Gonzalez has hauled in 69 catches for 712 yards and six scores.

With wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White stretching defenses deep, Gonzalez is free to work underneath. He is a master at exploiting the gaps in middle zones.

Vilma will be patrolling those areas, but even a player with his savvy, will need help subduing Gonzalez. With the Saints likely to leave both safeties deep for Jones and White, Gonzalez could run riot against linebackers underneath.

Jimmy Graham vs. William Moore

Prolific Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will receive plenty of attention from excellent young safety, William Moore.

The 27-year-old has turned into a key figure for the Atlanta defense. He has registered 64 tackles and one sack.

Moore has also showcased a knack for the big play, having recorded two interceptions and forced two fumbles. As well as he's playing, Moore still faces a tough task handling Graham.

He is the most dynamic tight end in the NFL. At 6'7" and with genuine vertical speed, Graham can threaten any defense deep.

The Saints move him around the formation and have him attack zones in a variety of ways. The Falcons have some capable linebackers, but none are a match for Graham.

That puts the pressure squarely on Moore. He must contain the player who had seven catches for 146 yards and two scores in that Week 10 meeting.

Asante Samuel vs. Marques Colston

Opportunistic cornerback Asante Samuel will pit his wits against the Saints' best wide receiver, Marques Colston.

Samuel is a natural ball hawk, always prepared to gamble in coverage. Colston will likely use his 6'4", 229-pound frame to keep Samuel at bay.

The nine-year pro is a smart and versatile wideout. He has the strength and intelligence to work across the middle. Colston also offers the long-striding speed to test Samuel vertically.

Samuel usually relies on his expertise in off-coverage techniques to prevent opponents getting deep. If he can make Colston a non-factor, the Falcons can roll the rest of their coverage to Graham.

Saints offensive line vs. John Abraham

The Saints offensive line might struggle to combat veteran pass-rusher John Abraham. The group was thoroughly dominated by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12.

Facing Abraham is the last thing the New Orleans front five needs after that beating. The greybeard pressure specialist remains one of the most technically-astute pass-rushers in the league.

A seemingly endless source of big plays, the 34-year-old leads the Falcons with nine sacks and four forced fumbles.

If the Saints want quarterback Drew Brees to dominate this game, they'll have to pay plenty of attention to Abraham.

Steve Spagnuolo vs. Matt Ryan

The battle of wits between Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, could prove pivotal.

The Saints are currently the worst defense in the NFL. Spagnuolo's complicated schemes still haven't taken hold among his players.

That's bad news when preparing to face Ryan. He has thrown for 3,425 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Ryan's strong-armed accuracy and his host of weapons, gives the Falcons the most dangerous passing attack in the league.

However, Ryan's usual efficiency has been missing in recent weeks and Spagnuolo could take advantage. Ryan has committed seven turnovers in his last two games, including six interceptions.

The Saints won't worry too much about Atlanta's 28th-ranked running game. So they will be free to go after Ryan.

Spagnuolo likes to confuse protection schemes with an array of zone blitzes. If he can unleash a host of complex fire zone pressures, he could force Ryan into some critical mistakes.

The outcome of this divisional tussle will have huge implications on the NFC playoff picture. A win for the Falcons can all but wrap up the NFC South.

It would also push them a step closer to home-field advantage. For the Saints, defeat means their playoff aspirations will be over.

image: © emeryjl