What we know about the Saints - Falcons rivalry (13-5 N.O. Since 2006) is that the teams respect but don't really like each other, the games usually come down to the wire, and this year we know that after a season of inconsistency, either the Saints (6-8) or Falcons (5-9) can still take a big step forward to the playoffs.
"In the past our division has always been pretty tough, so despite the records our division has always been a battle to the end," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "So we expect it this year to be the same, and here you go, we're heading into a game on Sunday where everything's on the line."
A win for either team does not guarantee a post-season berth, with the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) sill in the mix, but for the Saints, they really do have all the control. They host the Falcons, and will play lowly Tampa Bay (2-12) to wrap up the regular season, so New Orleans appears to be the favorite to take this division, but they have to find a way to play well on Sunday. If the Black-and-Gold team that took care of business against Chicago Monday night shows up, the Saints should be fine, but if somehow, the erratic play appears again, and they come out flat, it could be another long day. The team says it has to bring its 'A' game because of what's at stake.
"We know what's in front of us," running back Pierre Thomas said. "We just gotta stay focused and go after it. The thing is we can't put ourselves in bad positions, penalties, dumb mistakes out there on the field, missed assignments. We can't do that, turn the ball over. If we do that, we're not putting ourselves in a good position, we're not putting ourselves where we need to be to make it to the playoffs."
RETURN TO DOME FIELD ADVANTAGE?
After the Green Bay Packers game in late October, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with coach Sean Payton on the sidelines, but now entering their regular season home finale, the Black-and-Gold are looking to snap a four game skid in the Big Easy.
It's hard to believe, but the Saints have been outscored in their past four games inside the Dome, 129-to-71. Three straight November losses against the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens dropped the Saints to 4-7 on the season. Then two weeks ago, the Carolina Panthers embarrassed the Saints at home by 31 points, the most lopsided home defeat of the Sean Payton era. If not for three consecutive road victories, New Orleans would not even be close to post-season contention. According to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, this Sunday the Black-and-Gold have to regain their home dominance.
"It's a big deal for us," Graham said. "Our city expects wins here. We've always done it in the past, and we always play well at home. So we've got to get back to that, and I'm not sure what needs to be done, but every man needs to look in the mirror and figure out what he's doing wrong or what he needs to do better at home."
WILL JULIO JONES PLAY?
If he does not, this would be a huge advantage for the Saints. If Jones is unable to go, the Black-and-Gold defense will dodge a physically imposing wideout, who is currently one of the league's best.
Now in his fourth season in the NFL, the 6-foot-3, 220 pound Jones makes the difficult catch look easy, and last time he suited up, he racked up 11 receptions for 259 yards and a touchdown, but that was 11 days ago. Jones sat out last Sunday's Falcons loss to the Steelers because of a hip injury. He hasn't been able to practice all week, and is officially listed as questionable for the Saints game. Sean Payton says his team will be prepared to face Atlanta with or without Jones on the field.
"It hadn't complicated the preparation, and when you have a player, as well as he's played. Let's just say, prior to the injury. You're looking at a player who was unbelievable. So does that change things? Of course it does, but we prepare with the scenarios that hey we're defending that player. With the jersey numbers and everything, and then you react accordingly if you're not."
The Saints and Falcons kick things off Sunday at noon on Fox 8.