NEW ORLEANS — After lunch with D-Led at Mother’s — always my first stop in New Orleans — I’m ready for the afterthought of this road trip: a football game. (Sorry, but everything takes a back seat to food here.)
The byproduct of two straight wins and a few NFC playoff contenders collapsing around them has left the Falcons in a comfortable position going into tonight’s game against the New Orleans Saints: They’ve already clinched a postseason birth for the third time in four seasons.
But is winning that NFC South that implausible?
Three things need to happen for the Falcons to win the South and clinch a home playoff game: 1) They need to win tonight. (The last four meetings between the teams have been decided by a field goal, with two going into overtime, so an upset wouldn’t be monumental); 2) The Falcons need to win next week’s regular season finale at home against Tampa Bay. (Not a problem. The Bucs have lost nine straight); 3) New Orleans needs to lose next week against Carolina. (The Saints will be favored, but the Panthers have won four of their last five and have a high-scoring offense.)
In that scenario, the teams would finish tied at 11-5 overall but the Falcons would get the edge because of a better division record (4-2 vs. 3-3). So it’s possible they can pull it
off. But winning in the Superdome won’t be easy, especially with quarterback Drew Brees playing like the league’s MVP (16 touchdowns, zero interceptions in the last five games, 24 TDs and 3 interceptions in the last eight).
At least the Falcons know they’ve already clinched at least a wild card playoff berth, the result of Green Bay’s win over Chicago Sunday night.
If the playoffs opened today, the Falcons (NFC’s sixth seed) would face the Saints (third seed) in the playoffs. If the Falcons finish ahead of Detroit for the top wild card spot (fifth seed), they will travel to the NFC East champion, which will be the winner of next week’s Dallas-New York Giants game. If they win the division, they could wind up hosting Detroit. There’s still a chance New Orleans finishes with the No. 2 seed and
draws a bye, leaving the Falcons to travel to San Francisco.
For now, the Falcons are focused only on trying to play four quarters against the Saints as well as they played the last six against Carolina and Jacksonville.
Some obvious keys tonight: 1) Turnovers (it’s notable the Saints’ defense has only 13 takeaways, the fewest in the league; 2) Don’t waste red zone possessions, as was the case the last time the teams met; 3) Get some semblance of a pass rush on Brees, at least forcing him to move off his spot; 4) Pound the Saints’ defense with the run, using up clock and keeping Brees on the sideline.
The Falcons also get cornerback Brent Grimes back after a three-game absence, which should help against a quarterback who’s about to break the NFL’s single-season passing record (Brees’ 4,780 yards trails Dan Marino’s record of 5,048 by 268).
OK, that’s enough. I’ll turn it over to you now. Call me crazy (not the first time, I’m sure) but I like the Falcons’ chances tonight. They seem particularly up for this game. We’ll see. I’m here to serve, at least until I have to start banging out the game column.
By Jeff Schultz