The New Orleans Saints have already secured a spot in the playoffs, but they still have plenty to play for in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Two games behind the Saints in the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons are primed to join them in the postseason.
Needing a win to clinch their second division title in three years, the Saints look to continue their recent success against the Falcons on Monday night at the Superdome.
Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have installed the Saints as 6 1/2-point home favorites, with the total set at 52.
Riding a season-high six-game winning streak, New Orleans (11-3) is postseason-bound for a third consecutive year. Hoping to earn a first-round playoff bye, the Saints can wrap up the South title with a third straight win over second-place Atlanta (9-5).
“The sky’s the limit and that’s where we’re trying to get to,” New Orleans safety Roman Harper said. “Our goal is nothing less than a victory in the Super Bowl, and right now we just trying to stay focused and take it one step at a time.”
The Falcons, meanwhile, simply need to win either of their final two games to return to the playoffs. If Atlanta wins both contests and the Saints drop two straight, the Falcons would win their second consecutive South title by virtue of a better record within the division.
Atlanta concludes the regular season at home versus Tampa Bay while New Orleans hosts Carolina, both on New Year’s Day.
“We control what we can control,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It’s obvious our guys are familiar with the scenarios we are in. I know our guys are aware of it. We’re not going to change our preparation, how we prepare. We try to be as steady as we can and just continue to move forward like we have all season.”
Though the Falcons have had more than enough time to prepare for their division rival since posting a 41-14 home win over Jacksonville on Dec. 15, they face a huge challenge against the NFC’s hottest team.
The Saints, who totaled 573 yards in a 42-20 road rout of Minnesota last Sunday, have scored at least 31 points in three of their last four games. They have not allowed more than 24 points during the six-game winning streak that has followed a 31-21 defeat at St. Louis on Oct. 30.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “I’m talking about jelling as far as a team – offense, defense, special teams.”
Drew Brees went 32 of 40 for 412 yards and matched a season high with five touchdowns against the lowly Vikings. With an NFL-leading 4,780 passing yards, Brees is 305 shy of breaking Dan Marino’s single-season NFL record (5,084) set in 1984.
“I’m as comfortable now in this offense as I’ve ever been,” Brees said. “I’m aware that we’re close. I just know if we keep doing what we’re doing all of that stuff will take care of itself.”
Brees improved to 9-3 against the Falcons after throwing for 322 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-23 overtime win at Atlanta on Nov. 13.
New Orleans has won two straight and nine of 11 against Atlanta, but needed overtime to win their first 2011 meeting and lost 27-24 at home to the Falcons in 2010. Each of the last four games between the teams has been decided by three points – three of them won by the Saints.
“We’re going to play a very good opponent and someone we’re very familiar with in a game that obviously has a lot riding on it,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “We look forward to that challenge and we’ll go from there.”
Atlanta had little trouble taking care of the Jaguars, one week after rallying from a 16-point second-half deficit to win 31-23 at Carolina. In a span from the start of the third quarter at Carolina to the 2:12 mark of the third versus Jacksonville, the Falcons scored 65 unanswered points – though it did come against a pair of teams with a combined 9-19 record.
“That’s what we need,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, who has thrown seven touchdowns without an interception over the last two weeks. “That’s the kind of football we need to play moving forward, and I think it’s good that we’re doing it at this time.”
Roddy White caught 10 passes for 135 yards and two TDs against the Jaguars. It was the third time in five games he recorded at least 120 receiving yards. White, who has five touchdowns in those five contests, has averaged 112.8 yards and scored three times during his last four games against the Saints.
Teammate Michael Turner has rushed for 265 yards and two TDs on 50 carries in his last two games at the Superdome.