NEW ORLEANS — There have been enough times over the 40-plus seasons of Falcons-Saints games when we knew it really told us nothing about the future, other than maybe who would be happier once their hangover wore off.
One team stunk. Both teams stunk. Neither fan base was deluded into believing their team was that great, just better than the other one. It was the closest thing the NFL got to a college rivalry.
But the meeting in New Orleans Monday night will be different. This game likely will tell us something about the future for the Falcons. They’re almost certainly headed to the playoffs, and it’s possible their first-round game will be in the Superdome.
We know about the Saints: They’ve won six straight. Drew Brees, coach Mike Smith said, “is operating at a level we probably haven’t seen,” having thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the last five games. Because of Brees, New Orleans is a Super Bowl threat.
We don’t really about the Falcons: They’ve played their best six quarters of the season consecutively. But that has come against Carolina (6-9) and Jacksonville (4-11), so they’re not quite feeling a group hug yet.
Their 9-5 record breaks down this way: 7-1 against teams currently with losing records, 2-4 against teams with winning or .500 records (including Chicago, which was 7-7 going into its game at Green Bay game Sunday night.).
The Falcons were viewed as a title contender at this time a year ago, and we know where that got them. They’re viewed as something less than that now. They’ll tell you they’re fine with that because they have the wild card/Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers as a reference point. But this is when the Packers stepped on the gas a year ago (winning their last two before the playoffs, including 45-17 over the Giants in game 15).
This is when the Falcons can begin to define direction and alter perceptions.
“It’s an important game because we’re going down the stretch and this is a big test for us,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “This could be a really big statement game for us, especially if we have to go back down there to play these guys again in two weeks.”
The Saints haven’t clinched the NFC South yet. But for the Falcons to win the division and clinch a home playoff game, they would have to win in the Superdome and again next week over Tampa Bay, then hope New Orleans loses its finale against Carolina. In that scenario, the Falcons would be the NFC’s No. 3 seed and host a first-round game against Detroit. As a wild card, the Falcons would travel to either the NFC East winner (Dallas or New York) if they’re the fifth seed, or New Orleans or San Francisco if they’re the the sixth seed (which ever opponent had the lesser record).
The scenarios would be different if the Falcons hadn’t, in their view, given away a game to New Orleans six weeks ago. The Saints won in overtime 26-23. You might recall something about a fourth-and-1 decision by coach Mike Smith in overtime that backfired. But Atlanta also had three red zone possessions that resulted in only field goals. Matt Bryant missed a field goal. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw an interception that led to three Saints’ points.
If any of those things fall the Falcons’ way, the teams probably are tied at 10-4 today instead of separated by two games. That game still stings.
“Guys have had this game circled,” Smith said.
“This is the one that we want,” White said.
“When we lost, we knew this game would be here later on in the season,” center Todd McClure said. “We want to go back and get a little revenge.”
This is their chance. The Falcons’ playoff lives aren’t on the line. But how they play against one of the league’s better teams should tell us something more about where they’re going.
By Jeff Schultz