In a strictly clinical sense, by beating the Falcons in Atlanta Monday night, the New Orleans Saints really didn't alter the playoff picture all that much.
The Saints did clinch a playoff spot and you can't discount that, especially after fighting that Super Bowl hangover most of the season, good one week, bad the next. Somehow, you always expected they would find a way to get into the tournament and now they have done that.
But the Falcons can still lock up home field throughout the NFC playoffs by beating the two-win Carolina Panthers at home on Sunday, a task that should not tax them too severely.
So, nothing much has changed. Right?
Not true. Status quo aside, this New Orleans 17-14 victory is rich with meaning on many levels and none of them bode well for the Falcons' collective psyche as they gather themselves for a run they hope takes them all the way to the Super Bowl.
Around Atlanta, Monday's game was billed as the most important in Falcons' history, which stretches back 46 mostly-desolate years. This was a chance to prove that all they have accomplished this year is real, a chance to build a bankable reputation as the NFC's No. 1 team. A lot of people were not yet convinced and perhaps some of them were wearing Falcons' jerseys.
"If you're going to be the best, you have to beat the best" is one of those hoary old bromides that gets tossed around at times like these. One thing about hoary old bromides: They usually reflect the truth.
This was the Falcons' moment, and they tripped over it. While they didn't throw up all over themselves, the opportunity to put their stamp on this season was there in the fourth quarter.
They needed a defensive stop and they didn't get it. Brees stuck it to them again, engineering a seven-minute, 92-yard scoring drive to take the lead with 3:24 left.
There was still time. On Atlanta's next possession, the Falcons reached a crossroad, fourth and six from their own 43 with 2:45 remaining, in possession of two timeouts.
Instead of putting the game in comeback artist Matt Ryan's hands, coach Mike Smith elected to punt and the Falcons never saw the ball again. Hardly an aggressive way to go down.
Plain and simple, the Falcons did not defend their home field, where they had been 6-0 this year. And by limiting Michael Turner to just 47 yards, the Saints have no doubt created a blueprint for other teams on how to beat the Falcons.
Mostly, though, the Saints created doubt.
There will be more of these 'prove it' moments to come and maybe the events of the next few weeks will make everyone forget this game, but for now, the Saints are still the champions and the Falcons are just wannabe's -- very good wannabe's, but wannabe's all the same.
The average length of an NFL player's career is 3.5 years but the players believe that will become even shorter if the owners insist on expanding the season from 16 to 18 games.
That is the key sticking point between players and owners as the March 4 deadline approaches. Players believe that if there is not a new agreement in place by that date, the NFL will lock them out.
"I would think common sense would say at the end of the day, after all the fighting and after all the words are said, we understand who butters our bread," said veteran player and union executive committee member Brian Dawkins during a conference call with reporters to update the negotiations. "That's where the urgency comes in at."
Dawkins believes the extra wear and tear of 18 games will lead to shorter careers and, therefore, less money earned by players. Right now, the owners are not offering enough extra money for those two additional games.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's status for next weekend's game in Cleveland is still up in the air. Polamalu is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury. The game is a big one for Pittsburgh, which can lock up the AFC North title and a first-round playoff bye with a win. ...The Chicago Bears have little incentive for their game in Green Bay this weekend, having secured the NFC North title but coach Lovie Smith is not planning a letup. "Right now, we're going to play our guys the whole game," said Smith.