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Ryan and Brees to battle for 18th time

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have faced each other 17 times.

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Brees is 10-7 in those matchups.

The Falcons beat the Saints twice last season. The Saints won twice in 2015 and the Falcons won twice in 2014.

It's usually a high-scoring affair. Last season, the Falcons won 45-32 in New Orleans and 38-32 in Atlanta.

"Drew is unbelievable," Ryan said. "He's been so consistent for the 10 years that I've been here."

The Saints are now relying more on running backs Mark Ingram II and rookie Alvin Kamara.

However, Brees is still lethal. He has completed 291-of-407 passes for 3,298 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a passer rating of 104.2.

"I think he's playing really well right now," Ryan said. "I know they are running the football well, too. I know that helps when you've got a good running game going, it's huge. He's an unbelievable competitor. Whenever he's the quarterback of the team, you know they always have a chance."

The Saints are 9-3 and have a chance to inch closer to the NFC South title. They already have swept the Carolina Panthers this season. The Falcons are 7-5.

"They are playing great this year," Ryan said. "Obviously, their record proves that. You know these games are going to come down to the end of the game. Most of the time at least throughout my career, it's been that way."

The Falcons went 1 of 10 on third downs against the Vikings and did not score a touchdown for the first time in 30 games.

Ryan believes the Falcons must clean up their penalties.

"When you're going against a very good football team like Minnesota with an excellent defense, you have to take advantage of the opportunities that you get," Ryan said. "I thought that was a really good opportunity for us, but we just couldn't overcome the penalties."

Ryan put some of the blame on his passing.

"I thought we had a really nice drive at the beginning of the second half and had a third-down opportunity where I missed low to Mohamed Sanu," Ryan said. "I've got to play better than that. I've got to put it in position for him to make a play.

The Falcons know they can't let the Saints take away receiver Julio Jones from the offense.

"I think we'll be just fine," Ryan said. "We just have to get our mindset right, and everything that we want is still in front of us."

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn would like to see some more consistency from the offense, which played well during the three-game winning streak over Dallas, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

"We generally have tried to shine a light on things that were important for us to do, and in this last game from a drive standpoint, the third downs were for sure a factor," Quinn said. "We had a number that were longer, and I kind of told the group yesterday, some of the long ones we had to get a penalty to get into those long ones, and they ended with kicks."

The Falcons believe they can regain their efficiency on third downs.

"That for sure was a factor because we had really tried to work hard, probably since Carolina, maybe four or five weeks ago, to really emphasize third down and red zone more," Quinn said. "To not perform as well in that area last week was disappointing for us, but like most things, there's always something to keep addressing and fixing, not fixing, but shine a light on and for us that would be our third down and red zone."

Quinn believes the loss to Minnesota was a temporary setback.

"I like where we're headed," Quinn said. "We definitely took a fall-off last week in that world."

SERIES RECORD: 96th meeting. Falcons lead series, 50-45. The Falcons beat the Saints twice last season. The Falcons won 45-32 in New Orleans on Sept. 26, 2016 and 38-32 on Jan. 1, 2017 in the last regular-season game at the Georgia Dome. The Saints lead the NFC South and the Falcons need to make up ground with just four games remaining.

--Falcons starting left guard Andy Levitre, who suffered a left triceps injury against Minnesota on Sunday, was declared out of Thursday's game against the Saints by Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.

An NFL Media report said Levitre has a partially torn triceps and could miss two to three weeks.

The team would not confirm the report that Levitre is out for two to three weeks.

Levitre being out would be a major blow to the Falcons' playoff push.

Ben Garland replaced Levitre against Minnesota and played 43 of 53 offensive snaps (81 percent). Garland earned the lowest grade (40) on the offense from profootballfocus.com.

Garland, who lost the battle to be the starting right guard to Wes Schweitzer in training camp, allowed two quarterback hits, was called for holding and gave up two other tackles.

Austin Pasztor, who normally plays tackle, will be an option to be active for the game as the backup guard. Rookie Sean Harlow, a guard, has been inactive for all 12 games.

Pasztor has played in 61 NFL games and made 17 starts.

--Cornerback Desmond Trufant returned to practice from the concussion protocol, but Brian Poole's back injury must be lingering since the Falcons signed cornerback Leon McFadden and released running back Terrence Magee on Monday.

McFadden, who played at San Diego State, has been with the Browns, Dallas, San Francisco and the New York Giants. He has played in 34 games and has made two starts.

He worked out for the Falcons along with Leodis McKelvin on Thursday, Nov. 30. McFadden was drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Browns.

McKelvin, 32, was a former first-round pick of the Bills in 2008. The Waycross, Ga., native played at Troy and spent nine seasons in the NFL, last season with the Eagles.

--From 2012 to 2014, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan worked daily against Mike Nolan's defenses in practice. After serving as the Falcons' defensive coordinator, Nolan went to the Chargers for the 2015 season and sat out the 2016 season. He had been doing some radio on Sirius XM's NFL channel before deciding to join the Saints as their linebackers coach.

Under coordinator Dennis Allen, with the help of Nolan, the Saints' defense is vastly improved and is a major part of the team's 9-3 record.

The Falcons (7-5) are set to host the Saints at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"One thing I know with Mike is that you've got to be prepared for blitzes to come from anywhere," Ryan said.

Nolan helped the Falcons reach the NFC Championship Game after the 2012 regular season. But it was his defense that blew a 17-0 lead to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.

"He's very smart," Ryan said. "Very talented defensive guy."

Ryan doesn't believe that Nolan has any secrets to share with his Saints defenders.

"Our offense is so much different from the time when Mike was here," Ryan said. "Our protections and everything is very different from when Mike was here."

NOTES: TE Eric Saubert has a back injury and did not practice on Tuesday. ... WR Julio Jones was not happy with his two catches for 24 yards against the Vikings. He had 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the previous game against the Buccaneers. ... LG Andy Levitre (triceps) is out for the Saints game and TE Eric Saubert (back) are out for the Saints game. ... CB Desmond Trufant (concussion) is probable and is expected to start. ... CB Brian Poole (back) is probable.

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