Forget the records, whichever team wins the NFC South is going to the playoffs, which makes today’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints on FOX the most important of their respective seasons.
The Saints (6-8) are in the driver’s seat and can clinch the division title with a win at home and a loss by the Panthers. The Falcons (5-9) trail the Saints by a game, but a win would give them the season sweep and a 5-0 record in divisional play. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this one.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: New Orleans -6.5
New Orleans moved back into first place in the mediocre NFC South with a 31-15 victory on Monday night against a reeling Chicago team. Drew Brees (375-3-0) had little trouble carving up an overmatched Bears secondary, and the Saints sealed Jay Cutler’s fate with three interceptions.
Now the hope is that the Saints that can put together a similar performance at home against the Falcons, a thought that seemed ludicrous not too long ago. Usually near unbeatable in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans is looking to snap a four-game losing streak there.
Since beating Green Bay 44-23 in Week 8, the Saints have lost at home to the 49ers (in overtime), Bengals, Ravens and Panthers. Carolina drubbed New Orleans 41-10 two weeks ago, as the Panthers put up 497 yards of total offense.
Atlanta’s offense can be perceived as being even more potent than Carolina’s, but New Orleans could catch a break if Julio Jones is unable to play because of a hip injury. Jones is Matt Ryan’s favorite and most dangerous target, and his absence would be a huge blow.
The Falcons beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime way back in Week 1, a game that featured 1,040 yards of total offense. Ryan and Brees combined for 788 yards passing, four touchdowns and one interception (Brees) and Jones led all players with seven catches for 116 yards.
If Jones can’t go, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will need to pick up the slack against a New Orleans pass defense that’s had trouble with teams who like to air it out (Green Bay, Pittsburgh). For the Saints, Monday night was a welcome sight in that All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham got back in the act with five catches for 87 yards. He had totaled just three grabs for 25 yards in the prior two games combined. Graham led the team with eight receptions (82 yards) in the first meeting against Atlanta, and it’s a safe bet he will be targeted often as he looks to take advantage of the NFL’s worst pass defense.
With these two pass-heavy offenses, the ground game often takes a back seat. Both defenses have been susceptible to the run, but neither offense appears to have much appetite for taking the air out of the football. The Falcons’ running game may be under a little more pressure to produce, however, especially if Jones is unable to play.
New Orleans is in first place, but Atlanta also is in control of its playoff destiny. The NFC South is only getting one team into the playoffs and it could be the team that wins today.
The Saints were the popular pick to make it to the playoffs entering this season, and their path sets up nicely with the final two games at home. It hasn’t been easy, especially at home, but New Orleans shows Atlanta why the Superdome is still one of the best home-field advantages in the league and gets a step closer to another division title in the process.