NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons can secure the second seed in the NFC Playoffs and a first round bye with a win as a touchdown favorite over the Saints. A New Orleans win gives the Saints an 8-8 finish in 2016...not a winning record, but for the first time in three years, not a losing one either.
The Falcons went from an 8-8 record a year ago to their first division title since 2012. They did so with the continued exemplary play of their stars like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the rapid maturation of young veterans like Vic Beasley and Teven Coleman and a collection of newcomers like Alex Mack, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Taylor Gabriel, who made an immediate, positive impact.
Should the Saints win on Sunday, it would be their turn to finish at .500 and you could make the argument that they could duplicate the Falcons' ascendancy next year. Some of the same elements are in place here as there. What isn't known is who will be those Saints newcomers in 2017 and how much they can positively impact the returning corps of veterans.
But for the first time in recent memory, there is evidence that they Saints can spend wisely and evaluate talent better with greater resources under the salary cap... that they can do the same in the upcoming draft for which they are currently missing only a fifth round pick. They did a stellar job in last April's selections and figure to be in the same ballpark as a year ago when their first round pick was the 12th overall.
A three-game winning streak against quality opponents to end the season would engender some tangible optimism to take into the off-season. But much can change in the interim between this year's finish and next year's start.
Almost a year ago as the Saints knocked off the Falcons in Atlanta 20-17, the game-deciding heroes of the day featured Jamarca Sanford, Ben Watson, John Jenkins and Kai Forbath. Not one of them was back or back for long in 2016.
For whom will Sunday's game be the last as a Saint contributor?