NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The starting quarterbacks for the 107th regular season edition of the Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints rivalry will be 35-year-old Andy Dalton and untested rookie Desmond Ridder.
It's not what either team envisioned when the 2022 schedule came out.
Dalton expected to be a backup when he signed with New Orleans last offseason. But he's not about to complain.
“The one thing you can’t take for granted is an opportunity,” Dalton said. “I’ve been on both sides of it, and I’m thankful that I still get a chance to play this game, still get a chance to go out and try to help this team win, regardless of the record, regardless of everything else that goes on.”
The records don't flatter either team. But when Atlanta (5-8) visits New Orleans (4-9) on Sunday, the game could affect NFC playoff picture. The Falcons are only a game behind NFC South leader Tampa Bay (6-7) with four to play — and Atlanta hosts the Buccaneers to close the regular season.
Not exactly a low-stakes moment for the Falcons to place starting quarterback Marcus Mariota on injured reserve. Mariota will have surgery for a chronic knee injury, and coach Arthur Smith elevated Ridder, who has zero career completions, to make his first NFL start.
“There is an unknown, there’s a risk," Smith conceded. "But we’ve got confidence in him, or we wouldn’t put him out there.”
Even the Saints' playoff hopes aren't yet extinguished, but nearly so because they've lost twice to the Bucs. Still, Saints running back Alvin Kamara asserted that this game matters.
“We’re not eliminated. Even if we was eliminated, you still got to get up for Sundays,” Kamara said. “I don’t think it’s any hanging heads or anybody walking around feeling sorry for themselves. We’ve just got to do what we need to do to win.”
In Week 1, when the Saints won 27-26 in Atlanta, the QBs were Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston and Mariota, who also happened to be the first and second overall picks in the 2015 draft.
But the chances Winston and Mariota got to re-establish themselves with new teams haven't worked out for them.
Dalton, now in his 12th season, was named the Saints' starter in Week 4 after Winston struggled to play through an early-season back injury.
But even after the 28-year-old Winston declared himself physically ready to come back, the Saints decided Dalton ran their style of offense better and have stuck with him since.
ANOTHER MARIOTA DECISION COMING
The Falcons’ QB change appears to have long-term implications. It seems likely Mariota has played his last game with Atlanta.
Mariota signed a two-year deal with the Falcons in the offseason, and the team can avoid a $3 million roster bonus by releasing the quarterback by March 19. They would save $12 million for 2023 with a remaining dead cap hit of $2.5 million.
Mariota, 29, completed 61.3% of his passes for 2,219 yards, with 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions in Atlanta’s run-first offense. He ran for 438 yards and four touchdowns.
Atlanta has lost four of its past five games, scoring no more than 17 points in the four losses.
After a strong midseason stretch of four straight games with more than 100 yards from scrimmage, Kamara has gone five straight games without as many as 90.
Kamara described a combination of factors — his own mistakes, the attention defenses have paid to stopping him and the Saints' overall difficulty running the ball — that have led to his unusual dip in production.
But the versatile, star running back hasn't lost his sense of humor.
"I’ve been trying to run super fast in practice, so they can see that I can run," Kamara said, poking fun at one of his critics on social media. "Somebody told me I lost a step. ... I just laughed at it. So, I’ve been running fast trying to make sure I didn’t lose a step.”
Suddenly, the Falcons’ quarterback room is an all-Kentucky club.
Logan Woodside, who was signed off Tennessee’s practice squad on Monday to be Ridder’s backup, is a native of Frankfort, Kentucky, who played at Toledo. Ridder is from Louisville, Kentucky, and starred across the border at Cincinnati. Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone played at Louisville.
Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London said Ridder and Woodside “clicked immediately."
“They’re telling quarterback stories from Kentucky,” London said. “I feel like at times I’m the outsider in there.”
Tyler Allgeier has become Atlanta’s rushing leader by gaining momentum in the second half of his rookie season. In the last six weeks, Allgeier ranks second in the NFL with 5.96 yards per carry, and second with 4.09 yards after contact, trailing only Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (6.26 and 4.93, respectively) in that span. With 280 yards on 47 carries during that time, Allgeier has passed Cordarrelle Patterson for the team lead in rushing.
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