THE FIFTH DOWN; Wild-Card Matchups: N.F.C.

3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3, South)

6. DETROIT LIONS (10-6, wild card)

The Saints are the team nobody wants to play, particularly at the Superdome, where they have rewritten large sections of the offensive record book this season. The Lions have the battle scars to prove it. On Dec. 4, Detroit ventured into New Orleans and fell behind, 17-0, and trailed at halftime, 24-7, on the way to a 31-17 New Orleans victory. It’s no secret why. The Saints, with the top passing offense, have more weapons than any other team in the N.F.L. The 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham is practically uncoverable, and when teams try to double-team him, they leave somebody like Marques Colston alone. When the Carolina Panthers tried to blanket Graham on Sunday, Colston had 145 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Drew Brees merely set the single-season mark for passing yards and broke his own record for completion percentage.

Expect more of the same in this game, which should be a shootout. In the teams’ regular-season game, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 408 yards, outgunning Brees (342). Both teams can rush the passer, but that does not seem to matter to either quarterback. What foiled the Lions last time was an inability to finish drives – for all that yardage, they scored just two touchdowns.

The Lions’ defense is a wild card. The pass rush has been formidable – Cliff Avril is the sack star this season – but Detroit was scorched by Aaron Rodgers’s backup, Matt Flynn, in the regular-season finale in a game that did not matter for the Packers. Consider that a warning.

KEY TO THE GAME The Lions should hope that Brees decides to retire this week. Short of that, a fast start by the Lions’ offense is essential because no coach has a better killer instinct when he gets a lead than the Saints’ Sean Payton.

4. GIANTS (East winner)

5. ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6, wild card)

The Falcons got a lucky break in the final game. If the Lions had beaten the Packers, the Falcons would have had to return to New Orleans, where the Saints humiliated them last Monday, 45-16. Instead, Matt Ryan will face the Giants’ explosive offense, but exploitable defense, far more vulnerable to the pass than the Saints’ defense is.

The Falcons have been a bit of an enigma, beating middling or worse teams (Jaguars, Panthers, Seahawks, Vikings) and losing to most of the playoff-caliber ones (Saints, Texans, Packers). The second loss to the Saints highlighted their biggest problem: they struggle against the pass. Discount the blowout of the Buccaneers on Sunday – that says more about how Tampa Bay quit than it does about how the Falcons stack up with other playoff teams. Still, the Falcons badly needed a big win to feel better heading into the playoffs, and they got it. Running back Michael Turner had been struggling with a groin injury, but he broke out with 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries.

But keep an eye on the rookie receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons’ offense might not have been able to keep up with the Saints, but that does not make them unique. Jones could bedevil defenses that rank near the bottom of the league against the pass, and that makes the Falcons a dangerous playoff team. The pressure will be on Ryan to beat the relentless pressure that the Cowboys or the Giants can bring – the Falcons allowed just 26 sacks this season – and to try to keep pace with the offense on the other side.

KEY TO THE GAME The Falcons will have to protect Ryan from some of the best pass rushers in the N.F.L. to give the offense a chance to keep up with a quarterback who is having a superb season.

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-1, North)

The Packers lost some steam down the stretch, their defense hurt by the run (199 yards by Chicago on Dec. 25) and the pass defense woeful throughout the season. But the bye will serve its intended purpose: everybody can get healthy before the divisional round, especially receiver Greg Jennings (knee), defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) and several offensive linemen.

2. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3, West)

They entered the final Sunday with the league’s best scoring defense (they did not give up a rushing touchdown in their first 14 games), which has allowed them to play a conservative, virtually error-free offensive style. That formula will get an extreme test if the seeds hold up and their divisional round opponent is the Saints.

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

PHOTOS: Saints receiver Marques Colston (PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL HABER/ASSOCIATED PRESS); Wide receiver Julio Jones of the Falcons (PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES)


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Saints Top Falcons to Claim Playoff Spot

The (11-4) earned the opportunity under fire Monday night, shaking off the Atlanta Falcons by 17-14 in the charged atmosphere of the Georgia Dome.

The win gets New Orleans through the playoff turnstile, assuring them at minimum a wild-card berth. The Saints, who host the in the season finale, can still win the N.F.C. South, but it is not likely. Atlanta (12-3) would have to stumble at home against lowly Carolina.

“It feels good,” Saints quarterback said after the game. “You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we’ve done that.”

It took awhile this season for the Saints to discover that, as the defending Super Bowl champions, “Everybody is going to give you their best shot,” safety Roman Harper said. “No game is just a gimme.”

“Everybody plays the champs like it’s a playoff game every time,” defensive tackle Remi Ayodele said. “We’re just trying to get into the tournament. Give us a shot.”

The Falcons, driven to show skeptics that their status as the pending top N.F.C. seed is no fluke, led by 14-10 well into the fourth quarter. After an Atlanta punt, New Orleans stared at a gulf of 90 yards between the line of scrimmage and the goal line.

But Brees shook off a dreadful start to the period and whipped his squad to the winning score, a 6-yard pass to Jimmy Graham with three and a half minutes left.

“He’s gonna come through for us,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of Brees. “We never worry about Drew Brees.”

The teams flipped the anticipated script on a clash of forceful offenses — New Orleans’s quick strike, Atlanta’s ball control — with a defensive tour de force.

Setting the tone in the first quarter were the teams’ six combined punts, nearly matching the rushing total, 7 yards.

“We made them do something else than let them run Michael Turner and throw to Tony Gonzalez,” the Saints’ Harper said.

Defensive end Alex Brown said: “We gang-tackled. We were pretty sound all night.”

The Falcons’ defense seemingly turned the game in their favor with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, neither by a defensive back.

Brees tossed a high-risk pass with the Falcons’ Jonathan Babineaux wrapped around him. Defensive end Chauncey Davis picked it off and lumbered 26 yards to lift Atlanta in front, 14-10.

In no time, Brees found Marques Colston in the end zone for an apparent go-ahead score, but a penalty wiped it out. On the next play, Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon deflected a Brees pass and plucked it out of midair to stave off the threat.

The Falcons’ defense thought it had induced yet another turnover, pouncing on a fumble that would have set up their offense a step outside the red zone with just over two minutes left. But a replay rightly reversed the call.

Though unexpectedly short of scoring, the game fit nicely into a rivalry that is one of the ’s least appreciated, partly because of its provincial nature and sorry legacy of insignificant games.

The league’s two most deeply Southern cities broke in their teams a year apart in the mid-1960s. During decades of mostly inept seasons — until the Saints’ Super Bowl run last year, the franchises had combined for only eight playoff wins — the twice-annual games were highlighted on fans’ schedules.

The animus was altered when sent thousands of New Orleans residents to the Atlanta area, where many resettled for good. Some switched, or at least split, their allegiances, while others stayed loud and proud.

Atlanta inadvertently did its part to help restore New Orleans, losing to the Saints in the first post-Katrina game at the Superdome four seasons ago.

The rivalry, if changed, remains intense, and Falcons wide receiver Roddy White fanned the flames last week with the thoroughly modern version of athletics trash talk: posting on . Though White also posted an apology on Twitter, he was often at the center of chippy play early Monday.

Late in the first half, White helped Atlanta cut the deficit to 10-7 on a 7-yard scoring catch, the 3-point margin being a 52-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.

Hartley almost lost his job by misfiring from about half that distance in overtime of a loss to Atlanta in September, the low point of the Saints’ bumpy 4-3 start.

The Saints promptly added the veteran John Carney to the roster, which scared Harley straight, and he returned to good graces a few weeks later.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, 19-1 as a starter at home before Monday, could not rescue his team. Atlanta fans, many of them unwilling to let go of the era by wearing his old No. 7 jersey to games, now prefer Ryan’s No. 2 as their fashion statement.

But the player known as Matty Ice never warmed up, steering his offense to a single score.

“We just didn’t make the plays,” Falcons Coach Mike Smith said. “We still like where we’re at.”

So do the Saints, their chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions not rinsed away.

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Falcons Eager to Send Message to Super Bowl Champs

The defending champs have been looking up at the Atlanta Falcons for more than two months.

About time for the New Orleans Saints to send a message.

“We’ve got an opportunity late in the year to maybe re-establish the balance of power,” fullback Heath Evans said. “They came to our house and beat us the first time, and now we’ve got the test to try to do that to them. It won’t be an easy one, for sure.”

New Orleans (10-4) lost to the Falcons at home in the opening month of the season and has trailed the Falcons in the NFC South ever since an upset loss to Cleveland on Oct. 24.

While the Saints have won six out of seven since then, Atlanta (12-2) hasn’t stumbled at all. An eight-game winning streak has the Falcons on the verge of wrapping up their first division title since 2004 and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

They can accomplish both with a victory Monday night over their biggest rival.

“That’s a lot of good things,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. “When you put yourself in good position all year, you know games are going to mean something down the stretch. There’s certainly a lot at stake. … We know that.”

The Falcons have even given themselves some margin for error. They’ve already locked up a playoff spot. Even if they lose to the Saints, they will merely need to beat Carolina (2-13) at home in the regular-season finale to lock up everything that’s at stake in this one.

But New Orleans isn’t the only team trying to send a message Monday night.

“You never want to leave any doubt,” said Roddy White, the Falcons star receiver and chief provocateur. “That’s the tone in our locker room. We want to beat these guys again, because we don’t want to leave any doubt. You never want to lose to a team, then have them come back and play you again.”

Indeed, both teams realize there’s a very real possibility they’ll be facing each other again in a few weeks in the playoffs.

“We definitely want to finish this season off strong,” New Orleans running back Reggie Bush said. “The playoffs are coming up and if we’re able to beat Atlanta and kind of leave something in the back of their minds for the potential rematch in the playoffs, then that’s what we want to do.”

Atlanta comes in with an eight-game winning streak, its longest run since reaching the only Super Bowl in franchise history during the 1998 season.

The Falcons clearly believe they can make it back again, and they’ve sure put themselves in the best possible position with just two games left before the playoffs. One more win ensures a first-round bye and means they wouldn’t have to play another game away from the Georgia Dome this season — unless they make it to Dallas for the title game.

Not a bad place to be, either. At home, the Falcons are 6-0 this season, 19-3 in Mike Smith’s three years as coach and 19-1 with Ryan as the starting quarterback.

“Obviously with the record we’ve been able to amass playing at home, it’s an advantage for us,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We need to go out there and exploit it.”

The Saints had hoped to come into this game with a shot at tying for the division lead, but a loss at Baltimore last week left them two games behind the Falcons with two to play. New Orleans has yet to secure a playoff berth, either, and would prefer not to go into the season finale against Tampa Bay in a must-win situation.

Either way, the Saints know they’ll likely face a much tougher road to the Super Bowl than they had a year ago.

Road is the operative word here. Last season, New Orleans claimed its spot in the title game with a pair of playoff victories at the Superdome. This time, it’s likely to be three road games standing in the way of a return appearance, even if the Saints knock off the Falcons.

Of course, winning in Atlanta would be good experience for what New Orleans could face in the postseason.

“We have to go on the road in a place they’ve played extremely well in. We have to find a way to win,” quarterback said. “Indeed, if that becomes our journey in the playoffs, say if we’re a five seed on the road, we have to be able to go into hostile environments and win games in playoff atmospheres. This will be one of those atmospheres.”

Atlanta is playing at home for the first time since a Nov. 28 victory over . The Falcons are eager to clinch the fourth division title in franchise history in front of the home folks.

“We’ve been on the road for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be good to get back home.”

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