NEW ORLEANS -- The smile on Drew Brees’ face all but confirmed that the cliche about all regular-season games counting the same would not apply when the Saints play the Falcons tonight.
In Atlanta and New Orleans, there’s always been a contagious energy surrounding one of the NFL’s fiercer regional and divisional rivalries.
Players have felt it even in years when both teams were lousy.
This second meeting this season between the NFC South Division foes is full of hype-stirring story lines. The Saints (11-3) can win the division with a win. The Falcons (9-5) must stop them to keep alive their chances of repeating as division champs and can clinch at least a wild-card playoff spot with one more victory.
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And in a city known for seasonings, this game has the added spice of Brees aiming to break Dan Marino’s all-time single-season passing record, and liking the idea of potentially doing it in front of Saints fans against the team they love to hate in a nationally televised game.
“Does it get much better than that?” Brees said. “We all looked on the calendar prior to the season starting and said, ‘Hey. Monday night. The day after Christmas. Atlanta. Week (16). That’s going to be a meaningful game obviously within the division and everything we have going for us. And just knowing the type of team they are, I’m sure they’re going to have a lot going for them as well.’
“Then you add on some of the other stuff and it just makes it more meaningful,” Brees said. “I guess we can’t make this game any bigger than it already is.”
Marino threw for 5,084 yards back in 1984. Brees is 305 yards from breaking it, and he has already thrown for 300 or more yards in a game an NFL-record 11 times this season. Last week at Minnesota, he threw for 412 yards and five TDs -- and only played one series in the fourth quarter.
Oddsmakers have Brees and the Saints, who are 6-0 in the Superdome, winning by a touchdown. However, recent history points to this game being closer than that.
In their previous meeting this season, the Saints won on a field goal in overtime, but only after Atlanta narrowly missed connecting on a game-winning touchdown pass at the end of regulation before kicking a tying field goal.
The Falcons then failed on fourth-and-1 in their own territory in overtime, essentially handing the Saints the win.
That was only the latest in a string of four straight meetings decided by three points, with two off those contests going to overtime.
“Every time it seems we play them, it comes down to a last possession or field goal,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We’ve just played so many close games, so many hard-fought games that it’s a sign that typically both teams are pretty evenly matched, very competitive and very good.”
Before Mike Smith took over as Falcons coach in 2008, he did not quite appreciate what a Falcons-Saints showdown meant to the two franchises and their cities, though he was brought up to speed in short order.
“This is obviously our biggest rival. I found out real quick when I became head coach,” Smith said. “They’ve been very competitive games since we’ve gotten here. ... Our guys I know are looking forward to competing and you want to be in this situation where games in Week 16 and Week 17 have a whole lot of meaning and they do for both teams. It’s going to be, I think, a great atmosphere.”
The Falcons aren’t all that worried about playing this game on the road, either. The last four meetings have not only been close, but have been won by the visiting team each time.
So much for home advantage.
“It’s not like non-divisional games where you’re coming into a new building and not knowing what to anticipate and expect, because we go there every year,” Smith said. “We’re familiar with it. We’ve got to make sure we have our plan in place to communicate.”
While the Saints have won six straight, the Falcons have won seven of nine, with the two losses coming against playoff teams New Orleans and Houston.
Atlanta’s offense has been particularly productive in its past two games, scoring 31 in a win at Carolina and 41 in a home victory against Jacksonville.
Receiver Julio Jones, who played little in the last meeting with the Saints because of a hamstring pull, is healthy going into this game, giving quarterback Matt Ryan his full arsenal of receiving threats, along with receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas, and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons’ success through the air has taken some pressure off of Michael Turner, who has 1,129 yards and nine TDs rushing this season.
“This is one of those things where you get everything clicking at the right time,” Turner said. “We feel like we’re getting healthier. We’re getting all our weapons back and finding that chemistry that we think we need to get to the next level. Hopefully we can keep riding this momentum.”