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NFL Preview - New Orleans (12-0) at Atlanta (6-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's not the worst problem to have.
Entering game two of December with a division title in the back pocket, a first-round bye and home-field advantage within range and the always-pleasant "rest the starters, you have nothing to play for" chatter imminent as the pre- playoff stretch drive deepens.
But then there's that whole history thing for the New Orleans Saints.
Coach Sean Payton and Co. maintained multiple stakes in the "it's never happened before" drama with Sunday's overtime win at Washington, in which they erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter road deficit for the second time this season to down the Redskins on a Garrett Hartley field goal.
No other team has overcome such a hostile hole even once in 2009.
"I definitely believe in destiny and I believe in karma and what goes around comes around," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We have been on the other side of this deal probably too many times. Maybe it's our time that we start catching some of the breaks and start being the team that wins them like this in the end.
"I feel like if you continue to do things the right way, then good things happen to you."
The win clinched the NFC South for New Orleans just a year after it finished last, marking the seventh consecutive season in which a team had turned that trick - the longest streak in league history.
And, oh yeah...the Saints are 12-0, too, and part of the NFL's first-ever twosome with that record.
Of the four Super Bowl era teams to win their first dozen games, only two - the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1998 Denver Broncos - won a championship.
The Dolphins finished their regular season unbeaten, while Denver started 13-0, ended at 14-2 and defeated Atlanta for the rings in John Elway's final game.
On the flip side, the 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 and lost the Super Bowl. And the 2005 Indianapolis Colts wound up 14-2 and lost in the divisional playoffs.
"It's nice to clinch the division," Payton said. "It's one of our goals along the way and we're very excited about that. We'll just keep battling now and the excitement is unbelievable."
As for the Falcons, the excitement of a win would suffice.
An emotionally deflated Georgia Dome resembled an athletic triage unit on the sidelines last week, when Atlanta was without five starters in a 34-7 loss to Philadelphia that dropped the hosts to 6-6 overall and squarely into the middle of an NFC playoff muddle.
Coach Mike Smith's team is an undesirable fourth in the chase for the conference's two wild card spots, trailing 8-4 pace-setters Philadelphia and Green Bay, not to mention the battle-tested New York Giants a step behind at 7-5.
Four more teams are only slightly worse off than Atlanta at 5-7 with just four games remaining.
Neither quarterback Matt Ryan nor running back Michael Turner played against the Eagles or participated in the team's Wednesday practice session. Ryan was termed doubtful on that day's injury report, while Turner was tabbed questionable along with seven teammates.
"There are no excuses," Smith said. "Injuries are a fact in the NFL and this late in the season you're going to have guys down. It just so happened that we're not as healthy as we would have like to been, and when that happens the next man up has to step up and do the job."
Atlanta leads the all-time regular season series with New Orleans, 44-36, but was a 35-27 road loser when the teams met in a Monday night matchup to conclude Week 8. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last season, with the Falcons coming up 34-20 winners at the Georgia Dome in Week 10, and dropping a 29-25 decision to the Saints in the Superdome during Week 14. New Orleans has won six of the last seven in the series, including home- and-home sweeps of their NFC South rival in both 2006 and 2007.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have faced off once in the postseason, with Atlanta winning a 27-20 road affair in a 1991 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Payton is 6-1 against the Falcons as a head coach, while Atlanta's Smith is 1-2 against both Payton and the Saints as a head man.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Anticipate fireworks. Despite the occasional brush with adversity, the Saints are averaging 36.6 points per game through 12 games - tops in the league. Their season-low was a 24-point output against the New York Jets in Week 4, while the Falcons held them to "just" 35 in the 35-27 New Orleans win on Nov. 2 at the Superdome. Brees is 6-1 as a starter against the Falcons since arriving in 2006 and is 13-3 indoors since 2008 with 44 touchdowns, 5,217 yards and a 113.9 passer rating. Receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem have been productive as of late, with the former logging 10 TDs in his last nine December games and the latter looking for a sixth straight game with a score. Running back Pierre Thomas has burned the Falcons with both a rushing and receiving TD in two straight games, while Reggie Bush seeks a fourth straight game against Atlanta with at least one TD.
The Falcons may be undermanned, but they're game. Individually, safety Thomas DeCoud had a sack and a forced fumble against Brees in the November meeting, while end Kroy Biermann returned a fumble for a touchdown. End John Abraham posted a career-best four sacks against the Saints while with the Jets in November 2001 and tackle Jonathan Babineaux has 4.5 sacks in his last six games. Also, cornerback Chevis Jackson returned an interception for a touchdown the last time the teams met in Atlanta. Statistically, the Falcons allow 374.4 total yards per week compared to the league-best 429 the Saints have averaged thus far. Babineaux and Biermann share the team lead with five sacks, while DeCoud and fellow cornerback Brent Grimes have two INTs apiece to lead the unit. Linebacker Curtis Lofton has 114 tackles, including 91 solos.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Should he play, Ryan will have the chance to extend a home record that's seen him win 12 of 13 games overall and post a 134 passer rating against the Saints in a 34-20 win last season. The reviews on his understudy, Chris Redman, are a bit more mixed. The veteran from Louisville was 23-of-44 for 235 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Eagles, reaching the end zone only on a pass to Roddy White as time expired in the fourth quarter. He did, for what it's worth, throw for 298 yards in his only career start against the Saints. Redman's options for the run game were limited in Turner's absence last week, not to mention the fact the team trailed throughout. Turner has scored TDs in three straight games against the Saints and has averaged 180 yards in his last two December outings with 20-plus carries. Through the air, Tony Gonzalez has 25 catches in his last three games.
Teams that score 36.6 points per week typically don't sweat much over the defense, and the Saints are no different. New Orleans' 20.9 points allowed and 343.9 yards allowed per week don't scare anyone on their own, but the unit has had a knack for making situational stops and providing the offense with opportunities through turnovers. As evidence, the team's plus-15 turnover margin is second in the league. Veteran safety Darren Sharper has eight interceptions to lead the team and tie for first in the league, and his 57 interceptions with 1,309 return yards and nine touchdowns since 2000 are also best in the league. Defensive end Will Smith has 7.5 sacks in his last six games and a team-high 10 that's second in the NFC as well. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who's questionable this week with a knee injury, has 82 tackles to lead the Saints, while safety Roman Harper is second with 80.
All hands are on the fantasy deck when it comes to the Saints, who ripped the Falcons for 442 yards and 35 points in November. Brees is a no-brainer play along with Colston, while Meachem and Thomas make awfully strong cases to be included this week as well. For the Falcons, Turner becomes the best ground option if he plays, as compared to lesser lights that did little against the Eagles. And both White and Gonzalez will catch balls regardless of whether it's Redman or Ryan throwing them.
The Falcons came up just short a month ago when they were healthy and a little more evenly matched in the standings than now. At this point, with New Orleans chasing history and Atlanta examining health-care options, it seems unlikely that the road to perfection will encounter more than a bump or two in Georgia. The wrong time for a banged-up team to encounter what might be the league's best.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 30, Falcons 17
12/10 14:01:10 ET