ATLANTA — When the first-place New Orleans Saints visit the Atlanta Falcons tonight for an NFC South matchup with serious playoff ramifications, the spotlight will be on the teams' top running backs.
All four of them.
The Saints (9-3) boast the NFL'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 veteran quarterback Drew Brees this season. But the big story in the Big Easy has been the emergence of rookie Alvin Kamara, the former Tennessee Volunteer who already has more than 1,200 yards rushing and receiving, plus 11 touchdowns.
"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 running back, and Tevin Coleman have combined for more than 1,500 yards rushing and receiving plus 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 took sole possession of the division lead with a victory over Carolina (8-4) on Sunday, 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.
After a run of three straight wins, during which their offense had come back to life, the Falcons took a step back Sunday with a dismal showing against streaking 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 one of 10 chances largely because they kept putting themselves in deep holes on first and second downs.
"We've got to find ways to score touchdowns," said two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, who was held to two catches for 24 yards. "We're better than this. We've got to come together and make plays."
The New Orleans secondary is getting healthier, which is good news as it prepares to face quarterback Matt Ryan & Co. Cornerback Ken Crawley returned from an abdomen injury and played well in Sunday's season sweep of the Panthers, while top draft choice Marshon Lattimore is trying to come back from an ankle injury.
Saints head coach Sean Payton said his defensive backs are facing an "extremely difficult" challenge that goes beyond top threat Jones, pointing 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," Payton said, "and we're going to have to be on point."
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 defensive end Cam Jordan.
"When you go against a guy like Matt Ryan, you're aware of his releases," Jordan said. "You play him two times a year, seven years in — this will be my 13th time playing him."
As the Falcons prepare for another battle with their biggest rivals, they're looking for a little more help from the crowd, too.
Atlanta hasn't had much of a home-field advantage in its first season at $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, going 3-3 so far. Most troubling for the Falcons, their fans don't seem to be nearly as loud as they were at the team's previous home, the Georgia Dome, which was demolished last month.
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. Quinn hopes that will change tonight, and he even tweeted out a form letter for fans to use if they need an excuse to report late for work Friday.
"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."