No matter how many times I write it, or say it out loud (often to myself, in front of a mirror…don’t give me that look), I still cannot believe that the 2016 Atlanta Falcons are, not only playoff bound, but NFC South Champions. And with a game to spare.
Incredibly, as a result of the Arizona Cardinals sinking a last second field goal, there is still one more task to be fulfilled. Despite few outside of Atlanta predicting much more than an 8-8 finish, these Falcons have the chance to clinch the second place in the NFC, adding a bye week to a prize haul that already contains one more game at the Georgia Dome. All they have to do is win.
New Orleans: A Familiar Roadblock
Unfortunately, there is always an obstacle regarding these sorts of things. The Falcons host the 7-8 New Orleans Saints, who travel to the Georgia Dome hot off the back of a win that handed the South to Atlanta. The Saints very much played the Grinch to the fans of Tampa Bay on Christmas Eve, delivering a loss that finished their NFC South title ambitions, and all but ended their playoff dreams. Ah well.
The Saints, despite what their record might suggest, aren’t an easy feat for these Falcons to overcome. They boast a rookie wide receiver only 29 yards from a 1000 yard season. They boast a mean, mean mauler of a defensive tackle who, despite missing their first 7 games, has 4 sacks to his name, and is making offensive linemen serious reconsider their career paths. And, to top it off, they have a quarterback currently leading the league in passing yards. It’s not gonna be a walkover.
An Unsung Rivalry
The Saints, of course, are playing for more than “just because”. How they’d revel in dealing the blow that stops the Falcons from securing a bye week. Double that with the revenge they’re looking to enact after the week three 45-32 blowout, on the 10th anniversary of the fabled “Katrina Game”, and there is plenty of kindling to fuel the pure fire of hate burning bright in New Orleans right now.
Naturally, the Falcons have their own motivations. As mentioned, second place in the NFC is down for keeps if they can pull off the victory. But it’s the rivalry that takes centre stage here. Those outside of the South likely aren’t aware of the sheer contempt each side holds for each other. In 2010, for example, a Saints defensive tackle confirmed he, and his team mates, have urinated on the Falcons logo on the field. In 2012, airport workers in at Atlanta launched eggs at the Saints team coach. Petty? You betcha. But what rivalries aren’t?
On a personal level, I look forward to these games above any other. Over the years I’ve cultivated rivalries within the group of friends who follow the NFL alongside me, but this means the most. In 2009, sans-Matt Ryan, a Chris Redman-led Falcons ran close the, soon to be, Superbowl winning Saints. I remain adamant we’d have won the with Ryan under centre. BUT I DIGRESS.
This is what kicked it off to me. I’ve celebrated every win and suffered through every loss like it was the most important thing to have happened to me at that moment. My favourite moment (thanks for asking, actually) is from the 2014 edition, in which Osi Umenyiora recovered a Drew Brees strip-sack, headed towards the end zone, but not before checking the clock, letting it run down to 0:00, turned around, and literally waved goodbye to Saints in pursuit, metaphorically waving goodbye to the Saints playoff chances at the same time. It was magic.
Video courtesy of the NFL YouTube Channel
I’ve got so many memories of these games, when #saintshateweek rolls around, I have a lot of fun reminding myself of every moment of glory.
The Falcons have nothing but good news on the injury front heading into Sunday. Rookie Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell appears to have exited concussion protocol, and is now in practice, albeit in a limited capacity. Austin Hooper is also being eased back into practice following a nasty looking knee injury; however it’s fair to assume neither player will be used in any heavy capacity. Expect both players rested for the week.
On paper, this is a game the Falcons should win. After putting up 33 points away from home last week, against a quietly dangerous defence, it’s not unfair to expect an increased level of productions from this offense. As with just about every game this season, it’s likely going to come down to whether the Saints offense can outgun a Falcons offense that is firing on all cylinders, or whether either atrocious defence can slow their opponents down just enough to give their boys an opening.
This isn’t a game played on paper, however. These games always have the making of a shoot out, however they very rarely end in that manner. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the game is played out at 45-40 or 17-13. That being said, the Falcons have been limited to under 20 points only once this season. And that was against a defence that is far superior to this Saints offering.
It’s a shame, then, that I can’t see the Falcons coming out with the win. Maybe it’s the cynicism that has been cultivated towards the Falcons over the last few years. Maybe I’m just being silly, but the Saints have no reason winning this game. The last (regular season) game in the Georgia Dome…2nd place on the line…wouldn’t it just be typical to see the upset come through?
Score Prediction: 27-31