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.”