ATLANTA (AP) – If you like running backs, you’ve come to the right game.
When the first-place New Orleans Saints face the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night in an NFC South matchup with serious playoff ramifications, the spotlight will be on the guys in the backfield.
All four of them.
The Saints (9-3) boast the league’s most dynamic duo. Mark Ingram has rushed for 922 yards and nine touchdowns, while also being on the receiving end of 42 passes from Drew Brees.
But the big story in the Big Easy has been the emergence of rookie Alvin Kamara, who already has more than 1,200 yards running and receiving, along with 11 TDs.
“Boom and Zoom” is Ingram’s favorite nickname for the backfield tandem, though he went on to say it’s not entirely accurate.
“You really cannot label one of us,” he said. “Both of us have the complete package.”
The Falcons (7-5) have their own productive pairing. Devonta Freeman, the league’s highest-paid back, and Tevin Coleman had combined for more than 1,500 yards running and receiving, along with 12 touchdowns.
“Both teams have two really good running backs who like to get after it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “If you like running backs, it’s your kind of game.”
The Saints claimed sole possession of the division lead with a victory over Carolina (8-4) last weekend, and they’re two games in front of the Falcons.
Atlanta desperately needs a win to have a realistic shot at a second straight NFC South title.
Other things to watch for in the prime-time game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
CROWD NOISE: The Falcons haven’t had much of a home-field advantage in their first season at $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, going 3-3 so far. Most troubling, the fans don’t seem to be nearly as loud as they were at the team’s previous home, the Georgia Dome.
There are noticeable chunks of empty seats throughout games, and much of the crowd seems to be spending its time gawking at the shiny new digs rather than cheering on the Falcons.
“We’ve built a billion-dollar house, and we need to throw a billion-dollar party,” Quinn said. “I think sometimes we’re still using the coasters. We need to be as loud and fun as all we represent as a city.”
Quinn even tweeted out a form letter for fans to use if they needed an excuse to report late for work Friday.
COVERAGE CONCERNS: The Saints’ secondary is getting healthier, which is good news as they prepare to face Matt Ryan, Julio Jones & Co. CB Ken Crawley returned from an abdomen injury and played well last Sunday in a victory over Carolina.
Top draft choice Marshon Lattimore is trying to come back from an ankle injury. Coach Sean Payton said his defensive backs are facing an “extremely difficult” challenge that goes beyond Jones.
He also pointed to Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper as players to keep an eye on, not to mention Freeman and Coleman out of the backfield.
“This is a team and it’s just built differently and is very explosive outside and we’re going to have to be on point,” Payton said.
SOMETHING TO PROVE: The Falcons’ offense is eager to make up for a dismal showing last week against Minnesota. In a 14-9 loss, Atlanta failed to score a touchdown for the first time in nearly two seasons – a major embarrassment to a team that led the league in scoring a year ago and has so many weapons.
The Falcons had huge problems on third down, converting only 1 of 10 largely because they kept putting themselves in deep holes on first and second down.
“We’ve got to find ways to score touchdowns,” said Jones, who was held to two catches for 24 yards by the Vikings. “We’re better than this. We’ve got to come together and make plays.”
UNBURDENED BREES: With all the help he’s getting from the running game, Brees is playing some of the most efficient football of his career. He has completed an NFL-best 71.5 percent of his passes for 3,298 yards and 17 TDs with just five interceptions. When he hasn’t been gashing defenses with screens to Kamara and Ingram, he’s been hitting Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. downfield. Thomas has a team-leading 75 catches for 875 yards and three TDs.
HANDS UP: Mindful of how quickly quarterbacks, including Ryan, unload passes these days, the Saints have been working on batting balls down at the line of scrimmage. The front four has accounted for 16 passes defended this season, including six by DE Cam Jordan. “When you go against a guy like Matt Ryan,” Jordan said, “you’re aware of his releases. You play him two times a year, seven years in. This will be my 13th time playing him.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.