FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Devonta Freeman says he feels too good to harbor resentment against New Orleans coach Sean Payton.
Early in the fourth quarter of Atlanta’s three-point win over the Saints two weeks ago, Freeman was stopped for no gain near the New Orleans sideline, and a frustrated Payton taunted him with a choking gesture.
But Freeman, who has battled concussions this season, says that’s all in the past as he and the Falcons (9-5) prepare to visit the Saints (10-4) in an NFC South showdown.
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”I’m just excited to be out there having fun and getting to compete and battle with my brothers every day,” Freeman said. ”It’s a great feeling to be back out there. There’s no reason to mess up a good thing.”
Freeman knows there’s too much riding on this game to get caught up in distractions. The Falcons can earn a playoff spot for the second straight year with a victory, and they can win consecutive division titles for the first time in their 52-year history by beating the Saints and then Carolina in regular-season finale Dec. 31.
With so much at stake, Freeman isn’t concerned with trying to one-up Payton in Sunday’s rematch.
”At the end of the day, it’s all fun, it’s all love,” Freeman said Wednesday. ”We all understand each other because we go through the same things, so I don’t take it as disrespect at all.”
Payton offered an apology during a conference call with Atlanta reporters.
”Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting my emotions get the best of me,” Payton said. ”It’s the same thing that we talk about with our players all of the time. It wasn’t good, and I felt like as that game went on, it even affected me in calling plays. I’ve got to better that way.”
Freeman just wants to have a clear head. He’s had two stints in the concussion protocol since signing a five-year contract extension with $22 million guaranteed in August.
He missed three preseason games and came back strong before getting knocked out early in a win last month over Dallas. Since getting cleared to return after a two-week absence, Freeman has looked like his vintage self the last three games, running 58 times for a 5-yard average and catching six passes for a 12.5 average.
”I think I mix it up pretty well,” he said. ”I can do it all. It all depends on the situation, down and distance, determining what kind of runner I’ll be on that play, that game, that quarter. It’s all about adjusting, and I just try to adjust as the game goes.”
When he’s in sync with Atlanta’s zone blocking schemes, Freeman creates matchup problems with his running style. His 5-foot-8, 206-pound frame makes him tough to read behind big offensive linemen, and his ability to change direction in space makes him tough to tackle.
Defenders don’t have enough time to get proper leverage in their technique, and even if they do bring him down, Freeman is adept at twisting and diving for extra yards.
”Just when you think he’s going to change, he’ll go right through and finish on the run,” coach Dan Quinn said. ”That kind of really embodies the toughness that he displays. He’s really on top of his game right now.”
He’s actually been on top of his game since the start of 2015, ranking first in the NFL with 29 rushing touchdowns, fourth with 2,941 yards rushing and sixth in yards from scrimmage with 4,193. The Falcons drafted Freeman in the fourth round out of Florida State three years ago, but he didn’t become a feature back until his second season.
”I’m a big fan of his style of play,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. ”He’s special. The mix of elusiveness, his ability to cut and make guys miss, but also his ability to finish runs with power, to be able to run people over, run between the tackles, bounce it outside, catch the ball out of the backfield and pass-protect for us. He’s a complete football player. We’re really lucky to have him.”
Freeman hopes to have all of skills at full capacity on Sunday. And if he’s running near the Saints’ sideline and comes close to Payton, Freeman might even flash him a quick smile.
”Like I said two weeks ago, it was a competitors’ moment,” he said. ”I talk trash. He talks trash. Players talk trash. Coaches talk trash. This is what we’re in it for, to compete.”
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