This week it is the New Orleans Saints turn to kick the Falcons while they are down. And the man chiefly in charge of doing the kicking is an unapologetic Atlanta guy, a proud Georgia State Panther and what you’d call a reformed Falcons follower.
“I’ve bought into the culture, and I understand that we are not Falcons fans here,” chuckled Wil Lutz, who’s going on his fourth season as the Saints placekicker.
While growing up in Newnan, he could call himself a Falcons guy because, well, it was far safer than doing so around the French Quarter. When he played at Georgia State, he even shared a home field with the Falcons. There was a real kinship.
But he’s in a far better place now. The 7-1 Saints are polar opposites of the 1-7 Falcons. As the Falcons implode, the Saints are cruising toward their third consecutive NFC South title, finding constant success in a league that prizes turmoil in the standings. They have beaten the Falcons their past three meetings and are 13-point favorites Sunday — the biggest spread on the board this weekend. When faced with a setback — Drew Brees mangling his thumb certainly qualified — here’s a team that stepped up and won the next five games. And Brees is back now.
“It was the complementary football,” Lutz said, explaining how New Orleans did far more than tread water in Brees’ absence. “The offense wasn’t what we’re used to so the defense stepped up. Special teams played equally big a part in those games. Complementary football all the way around.” Oh, such a different story than the one the Falcons bring with them Sunday.
Against the Falcons, Lutz is a career 11-for-11 on field goals. His biggest boot against them was a 57-yarder as time expired in the first half in his rookie year of 2016. “It’s a little special game for me, I always look forward to it,” he said.
Obviously, the trip from Newnan to New Orleans has been good for Lutz. That is a particularly fine place to be when the pro football team is rolling. “It’s a party town as it is. Our fan base is so loyal, they have the same goals we have. I tell people every game feels like a party. It’s pretty fun to be a part of,” Lutz said. Where, in contrast, Falcons home games are tilting more toward a wake these days.
The last year has been particularly eventful for Lutz.
In March, the Saints signed him to a five-year $20.25 million extension, with half of it guaranteed. The guy who even late into his senior season at Georgia State was looking at going to law school has found a measure of security in one of football’s more insecure positions. The world doesn’t need another lawyer. But it can always use a kicker who is a career 86 percent accurate on field goals (a ridiculous 93 percent last season, 28-of-30).
Georgia State began its season with a big upset of Tennessee, which allowed him major bragging rights in a locker room that included such former Volunteers as running back Alvin Kamara and defensive lineman Shy Tuttle. It’s something of a Saints ritual to mark those moments when one teammate’s alma mater beats up on another’s. And sure enough, at Lutz’s request, Georgia State sent its Panther mascot outfit to New Orleans so the kicker could show it off proudly. (It was worn by a locker room attendant, not Lutz himself).
Lutz is one of three former Panthers on an active NFL roster, along with receiver Albert Wilson in Miami and cornerback Chandon Sullivan in Green Bay. “Between all of us, it’s kind of our job to continue trying to help the legacy,” he said.
The 2019 season began with Lutz hitting a 58-yarder with time expiring to beat Houston. A couple of weeks later in Chicago he set an NFL record with his 35th consecutive field goal on the road (he’d miss his next attempt).
He’s presently in a bit of a slump, having missed three of his past six attempts. But the just completed Saints bye week allowed him to “kind of reset going into the second half of the season.”
Not to worry. The Falcons are coming to town. And, presently, that is a cure surpassing any antibiotic.
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