FALCONS FLIGHT: Saints look to postpone Atlanta celebration

With two games remaining, the Atlanta Falcons are one win away from clinching the NFC South and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. What better way than to do it than on a Monday night, in the Georgia Dome, against their biggest rival of the current era, and at the expense of the defending Super Bowl champions?

Of course, the New Orleans Saints may have something to say about that.

While the Saints have flown under the radar most of the way this season, that has more to do with the Falcons than the Saints, themselves. Atlanta has stolen headlines from the rest of the league thanks to one of its best season’s in franchise history, but New Orleans has not exactly taken a big step back following its history-making 2009-10 campaign.

The Saints are 10-4 and recently surged to a six-game winning streak after a lackluster 4-3 start to the season. They saw their run come to an end last weekend, although a 30-24 road loss to Baltimore does not suggest that the Saints are running out of gas.

Despite having won six of its last seven, the inconsistency that translated into three early-season losses continues to be a problem for New Orleans. Included in the team’s six-game streak was a 34-30 win at Cincinnati and a 30-27 victory at Dallas. The Thanksgiving Day showdown at Cowboys Stadium would have been a loss for the Saints had Roy Williams not fumbled inside the opponent’s 10-yard line while trying to put the game away in the final minutes. The Saints easily could have fallen at Cincinnati had Bengals’ defensive tackle Pat Sims refrained from committing an unimaginably dumb penalty by jumping offsides on a fourth down.

Of course, the Falcons, too, have picked up several of their 12 victories in almost inexplicable fashion. These two NFC South powerhouses don’t always get the job done in the most convincing fashion, but the bottom line is that they know how to win football games.

Nobody has done that better than New Orleans signal-caller Drew Brees over the past few seasons. Brees was named Super Bowl MVP early in the year and more recently named AP Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Man of the Year. His 2010-11 campaign has not been quite as stellar; he has passed for 4122 yards and 31 touchdowns, but his 19 interceptions is an uncharacteristic number. Still, Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith knows Brees is one of the best in the league.

“His completion percentage and his ability to distribute the ball has just been unbelievable,” Smith said in his post-practice interview on Thursday. “He’s a great fit for Sean Payton’s offensive scheme and what they want to do. He’s one of the smartest quarterbacks that’s played the game.”

Part of the reason for Brees’ relative struggles is that he has received little support from the running game. The Saints are 26th in the NFL in rushing offense at 95.8 yards per game. However, Reggie Bush is back from a broken leg, Pierre Thomas is healthy, and Christopher Ivory has joined the scene. All three were non-factors in the first game against the Falcons, with Bush missing it entirely due to his injury.

Recent meetings: New Orleans swept Atlanta in 2006, 2007, and 2009. With both teams having taken care of business at home in 2008, the Saints had won seven of the last eight encounters between the two rivals heading into this season. Playing at home in the Superdome for a Week 3 showdown on Sept. 26, the Saints appeared to be on their way to yet another victory over the Falcons. However, Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard chip shot in overtime and Matt Bryant won it for Atlanta moments later from 46 yards out. Brees threw for 365 yards but was picked off twice, while Matt Ryan tossed two touchdowns without throwing an interception.

Injuries: For the Saints, Ivory–a pleasant surprise this season–is questionable with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Jabari Greer is also listed as questionable, but he participated fully in Thursday’s practice and should be good to go. The Falcons kept Curtis Lofton (knee), Roddy White (knee), and John Abraham (groin) out of practice on Thursday, but only according to the team’s scheduled maintenance program. All three are expected to play on Monday.

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