Matt Ryan ready for another clash with 'ultimate competitor' Drew Brees

Are the Falcons a playoff team? (0:55)

After a 14-9 loss to the Vikings, Jeff Saturday assesses where the Falcons are and if they are true contenders in the NFC. (0:55)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan didn't have to dissect much film to know what he's up against Thursday night.

The reigning MVP knows to expect a battle whenever the rival and NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints are on the schedule. And he knows he's in for a battle whenever Drew Brees is the opposing quarterback.

"Drew, I mean, he's unbelievable," Ryan said. "He's been so consistent for the 10 years that I've been here. He's been extremely consistent for them. I think he's playing really well right now. I know they're running the football well, too, which that helps when you're a quarterback. When you got a good run 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."

Ryan is 7-10 against Brees but has won the past two and four of the past six. In those two wins last season, Ryan completed 47-of-66 passes for 571 yards with six touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 127.8. The Falcons averaged 41.5 points on those games.

But this is an improved Saints defense. Led by reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Month Cam Jordan's 10 sacks, the Saints rank seventh in the league in sacks per pass play. They are 11th in pass defense, allowing 217.3 passing yards per game and 12th in total defense at 330.1 yards per game. They have been vulnerable against the run, allowing 4.62 yards per rush. However, the Saints have made up for any defensive lapses by outscoring opponents by an average of 9.2 points per game.

"Well, I think they're doing a good job up front," Ryan said of the Saints' defense. "Their front four has been really solid against the run. They've also done a good job in terms of creating pass rush. Got some new players in the secondary that have done a good job for them this year. They had some injuries the last couple of weeks, but when you watch them throughout the year, they've done a nice job in the secondary.

"I think they're improved on the defensive side of the ball. I think they've played very well all year."

Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been sidelined by an ankle injury and his status is uncertain. He was part of the reason the New Orleans defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL from Weeks 4 through 10.

For Ryan and the Falcons, the big key will be cleaning up the third downs after going 1-for-10 on third down in Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Ryan pointed out how the Falcons put themselves into too many third-and-long situations, whether by penalty or by not getting it done on first and second down. The Falcons were tops in the league in third-down offense going into the Vikings game but dropped to third (45.4 percent). The Saints are 15th in third-down defense (39 percent).

The Falcons are 7-5 and fighting for their playoff lives in the No. 7 spot in the NFC, one spot outside the postseason picture. The 9-3 Saints are playing well atop the division. Ryan said he's "not smart enough" to focus on too many things, like the different scenarios that get his team into the playoffs or the reality of having to win the remaining four games. He's just focused on the Saints.

"It's always tough playing New Orleans," Ryan said. "They're very well-coached. They're playing great this year. Obviously, their record proves that. You know these games are going to come down to the end of the game, last possession. Most of the time, at least throughout my career, it's been that way. ... I'm sure the Benz will be rocking on Thursday night."