The more you win, the bigger the games get and for the New Orleans Saints (10-4), Sunday’s game against Atlanta (9-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is the biggest so far this season.
Arguably, it’s as significant a game as the Saints have played since their divisional playoff matchup with Seattle that concluded the 2013 season, the last time New Orleans has appeared in the playoffs.
For the Saints, a win allows them to take another step toward an NFC South Division title and home playoff game. A win, coupled with a Carolina home loss to Tampa Bay, would give the Saints the division crown.
Couple the stakes with the opponent, and Sunday figures to be electric. The Falcons unquestionably are the Saints’ biggest rival, an opponent who beat the Saints 20-17 on Dec. 7 in a slugfest of a game in Atlanta, which generates a level of raw, genuine dislike for some Saints players and an overwhelming percentage of their fan base.
“Of course it’s big,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who, on Tuesday, became one of six Saints players named to represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl. “It’s the end of the year, there’s a lot at stake. We want to be playing our best football, it’s a divisional opponent – one we’re very familiar with, one we just played two weeks ago. It’s all about the week of preparation, and going out to play and playing our best.”
The Saints don’t believe they played to that level in the prior game.
While New Orleans forced three turnovers – interceptions by rookie Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safeties Chris Banjo and Marcus Williams on back-to-back-to-back defensive stands – the Saints converted just three times on 10 third-down chances, were held to 50 rushing yards on 15 attempts and Brees threw an end zone interception from Atlanta’s 11-yard line with 85 seconds remaining.
That left the Saints in a salty mood afterward. A victory Sunday, obviously, would produce a better mood. The ramifications of it guarantee that there will be undivided attention given to preparation during the work week.
“It doesn’t need to be said, what’s at stake,” said running back Mark Ingram, one half of the Saints’ Pro Bowl backfield, along with fellow running back Alvin Kamara. “I think our team knows that, but I think the main thing, the main focus, is us getting our gameplan together and us going out and executing our gameplan – playing physical, playing for one another, caring about one another.
“We have a good team coming in here on Sunday, so what’s at stake doesn’t need to be said. I think both teams know it’s very important. We’ve just got to continue to improve each day, work on our gameplan and execute our gameplan on Sunday.
“Division rival, the fact that a game of this magnitude is against your division rival just takes it up a notch. It’s going to be heated, it’s going to be competitive and if you’re a football player and you’re a competitor, this is what you thrive for. This is the type of environment that you thrive in and the type of environment you want to play in.”
Count left tackle Terron Armstead among those who are looking forward to the environment, and knows exactly how physical the game can be, and likely will be.
“We’re just worried about us,” Armstead said. “We’re not worried about the Falcons at all. We’ve got to take care of our business. This is a huge game, as far as what’s on the line. … And we’re going to approach it that way. But our focus is us.
“(Intensity is) added (because the Falcons are the opponent). Don’t let no one fool you. It’s a little extra. It’s a rivalry. It’s going to be a tough challenge, it may be a little chippy.”