Falcons visit Saints in NFC South showdown
NEW ORLEANS — As far as the New Orleans Saints (10-4) and the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) are concerned, the NFC playoffs start Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
While a victory by either team will not clinch the NFC South title outright — the Carolina Panthers (10-4) have a lot to say about that — a loss would be devastating to either team’s prospects of winning the division and earning the right to host at least one playoff game.
The Saints, who have missed the playoffs by going 7-9 in each of the last three seasons, probably have not played a game of this significance since facing Seattle in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. If the Saints win and Carolina loses at home to Tampa Bay, New Orleans would clinch the NFC South by virtue of its regular-season sweep of the Panthers.
“Of course, it’s big,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, still stinging from an end-zone interception he threw from the Falcons’ 11-yard line inside the final two minutes of a 20-17 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta on Dec. 7. “It’s the end of the year, there’s a lot at stake. We want to be playing our best football. It’s a divisional opponent, one we’re very familiar with, one we just played two weeks ago. It’s all about the week of preparation and going to play and playing our best.”
The Thursday night game in Atlanta 16 days ago had a little bit of everything for the Saints. Ten players left the field with injuries at some point, including rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who sustained a concussion on the first series on a helmet-to-helmet tackle by linebacker Deion Jones.
A Wil Lutz field goal at the end of the first half was waved off when the officials detected the Saints’ blocking unit lining up improperly, triggering a mandatory 10-second runoff that kept New Orleans from a re-kick.
The Saints’ defense forced Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan into three turnovers, but without Kamara keeping the chains moving, the Saints offense was stuck in neutral most of the night.
To make things even more dramatic, Saints coach Sean Payton was caught giving the choke sign late in the game to Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman and was fined by the NFL earlier this week for entering the field in the final 70 seconds and complaining vociferously to the officials.
The Saints converted only 3 of 10 third downs, and the Saints’ normally potent running game was held to 50 yards on 15 attempts.
“It doesn’t need to be said what’s at stake,” said running back Mark Ingram II, who along with Kamara was named this week to the Pro Bowl, the first tandem of tailbacks from the same team to make the Pro Bowl in 42 years. “It’s going to be heated, it’s going to be competitive, and if you’re a football player and you’re a competitor, this is what you thrive for.”
“The only thing that matters for us is preparing this week and giving us the best chance of playing football the way we’re capable of,” Ryan said, referring to the importance of blocking out the distractions.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn understands how heated the NFC South rivalry has become, but he said he does not think the game will come down to an official’s call or non-call.
“I don’t think it’s in anybody else’s hands,” Quinn said. “It’s not the refs. It’s us executing and going. The division teams know each other, so go throw your records out and go battle for it.”
The Saints had six players named to the Pro Bowl this week — Brees, Ingram, Kamara, receiver Michael Thomas defensive end Cam Jordan, and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore — the most since they had seven make it in 2009, their Super Bowl season.
“I think over time, generally, when you have team success, I think it allows more players to have those opportunities,” Payton said. “We’re proud of all those guys.”
The Falcons, who won five of their last six games to rebound from a 4-4 start, had two players selected to the Pro Bowl, receiver Julio Jones and center Alex Mack. Jones did not practice Wednesday because of ankle and thumb injuries, but is expected to play. Also, running back Tevin Coleman returned to limited practice after missing Monday night’s 24-21 victory over Tampa Bay because of a concussion he sustained against the Saints on Dec. 7.
“As far as the (concussion) protocol goes, I just trust the guidelines that they give us,” Quinn said.
The Saints held out left guard Larry Warford and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui from practice Wednesday because of the concussion protocol.
The Saints know what’s at stake.
“This is a huge game, as far as what’s on the line,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “Don’t let know one fool you. It’s a little extra. It’s a rivalry. It may be a little chippy.”