Falcons (9-5) at Saints (11-3), 8:20 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Line: Saints by 6
Recent ”Monday Night Football” intros have featured football legends reciting vaguely inspirational speeches pertaining to the home team’s current fortunes: Barry Sanders spoke of Detroit pride, Joe Montana hailed the return to relevance of the 49ers and Jerry Jones praised himself for positioning himself ahead of dozens of worthy Cowboys luminaries in a quest for 60 more seconds of television exposure. This game will be introduced by Betty White, who briefly quarterbacked the Falcons in the 1970s under the pseudonym Kim McQuilken. Production stills show White in a cozy Christmas setting, perfect for Dec. 26. If the Falcons and the Saints meet again in the playoffs, the halftime show will be a reunion of ”Designing Women.”
The battle for the No. 2 seed in the N.F.C. playoffs is one of the few compelling story lines left in the regular season’s final days. The 49ers have refused to fade away like good little upstarts, instead grinding out tough wins against the Steelers and the Seahawks. The Saints have no choice but to stay in full-throttle mode: for them, a No. 3 seeding could be disastrous.
Contrary to popular belief, the Saints are not a bad road team; they are 18-6 on the road in the last three years. They are, however, a team with fresh memories of first-round trauma: the Seahawks showed last year that sound tackling on defense and a few broken tackles on offense can trump all the gadgetry that New Orleans can throw at an opponent, even in the Superdome.
The Lions are the Saints’ most likely opponent with the third seed. The difference between finishing above or below the 49ers is the difference between a meeting with a pumped-up Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril and a week off.
Keeping pace with San Francisco means beating Atlanta, and the last four meetings between the Saints and the Falcons have been decided by field goals.
The Falcons still have a slim chance of taking the N.F.C. South from the Saints if they win. If that happens, the Saints wind up in the wild-card pool. With the Saints and the Lions swimming around, that pool would be more like a shark tank.
(Pick does not reflect the betting line)
This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.