A division title could be secured and a cherished individual record has a chance to be broken when the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints square off at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a marquee Monday night matchup with very high stakes.
The streaking Saints enter this pivotal Week 16 showdown between the NFC South's top two teams on the verge of capturing the division for the second time in the past three years. New Orleans currently leads the Falcons by two games in the standings with two to play, and needs only to win one of its two remaining contests to accomplish the feat.
Though the Saints have already clinched a place in the upcoming playoffs, the home game that comes with winning the division should ensure they'll have plenty of motivation for Monday's clash. New Orleans has been dominant at the Superdome over the course of this 2011 season, prevailing in all six of its bouts to date while averaging an astounding 39.8 points per game.
The Saints were forced to take to the road as a Wild Card entry in last year's postseason and wound up being bounced by a 7-9 Seattle squad in the opening round.
Atlanta, last year's NFC South champions, will making a return postseason trip as well after clinching at least a Wild Card berth following losses by Dallas, Arizona and Chicago over the weekend. Even with that objective now accomplished, the Falcons will have a larger goal in mind when they take the field on Monday.
"This is exactly where we wanted to be, in the mix in December with everything we want still in front of us with two games to play," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan remarked. "It just so happens that New Orleans is on the schedule this week. It's exciting. It's always fun playing down there and this is the time of the year that I think players enjoy the most. This is when it really counts."
To keep their division hopes alive, Atlanta will have to slow down a prolific New Orleans offense that also hasn't had too much trouble scoring away from home, as evidenced by last week's 42-20 throttling of the overmatched Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. The Saints rolled up 573 total yards on the afternoon, in large part due to a near-flawless performance from standout quarterback Drew Brees.
The league MVP candidate completed 32-of-40 passes against the Vikings for 412 yards and five touchdowns without an interception, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards and five scores with no picks while hitting on 80 percent of his throws in a single outing.
That sensational display upped Brees' season yardage total to 4,780, leaving him just 305 shy of surpassing Hall of Famer Dan Marino's league standard of 5,084 passing yards set during the 1984 campaign.
The New Orleans defense did its part as well in last Sunday's triumph, limiting the Vikings to 207 total yards and recording four sacks to help the Saints to their sixth consecutive win.
"I think we're jelling at the right time," New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. I'm talking jelling as a team on offense, defense, special teams, the camaraderie within practice, the meetings, being out and about before the games, getting to know each other off the field [and] just not on the field. I think defensively we're playing well. Offensively it's always been lights-out, so has special teams."
Atlanta comes into Monday's tilt on a nice roll of its own, with the club's 41-14 dismantling of lowly Jacksonville in Week 15 giving the Falcons wins in two straight games and seven of their last nine tests.
One of the losses over that stretch did come at the hands of the Saints, however, with New Orleans coming out on top in a 26-23 overtime thriller at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 13. The go-ahead points came on a short field goal from kicker John Kasay that was set up by the Saints stopping the Falcons on 4th- and-1 from the Atlanta 29-yard line.
The last four encounters between these rivals have all had a final margin of three points.