With the sudden emergence of rookie Julio Jones — who caught his first 2 TDs last week — the Falcons will try to tackle the Saints today.
ATLANTA -- This isn't your father's Saints-Falcons rivalry.
Now the games are played for more than Southern bragging rights. There's more on the line than a good excuse for a party.
Want To Watch?
WHO: Saints (6-3) at Falcons (5-3).
WHAT: Huge divisional game for first place in NFC South.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today.
LINE: Pick 'em.
Before Sean Payton became the New Orleans coach in 2006 and Mike Smith was hired by Atlanta in 2008, Saints-Falcons games were highlights in usually dreadful seasons. The exceptions were rare, such as when Dan Reeves took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in the 1998 season. More often the typical goal was trying to avoid last place behind the 49ers and Rams in the old NFC West.
The winner of today's game at the Georgia Dome will claim first place in the NFC South, and that has become the norm.
Last year, the Falcons won the division with the NFC's best record, and the Saints were a wild card. In 2009, the Saints won the division and the Super Bowl, and the Falcons were second in the NFC South.
The teams split two games last season, with each winning on the road and each game decided by three points, including the Falcons' win in overtime. This is the first game between the teams this season. The Falcons visit New Orleans on Dec. 26.
The Falcons (5-3) will try to stretch their three-game winning streak and the Saints (6-3) hope to show they're again the team to beat in the division.
"I think our No. 1 rivalry in this division is the Falcons," said Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. "They're just a good team. They're physical. The last two or three times we played them it has been a close game. So you're going to get a three-point game, an overtime game.
"You're going to get that when you're playing Atlanta. It's like Ali-Frazier. Expect 15 rounds. Somebody is going to get knocked down. Somebody is going to get up. But it's going to be a tough one."
From a national perspective, this may not rank with Steelers-Ravens, Packers-Bears or Patriots-Jets rivalries. For Falcons and Saints fans, this is the biggest game.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, "if you're just kind of walking around town" he often hears one popular request from fans:
"'If you do one thing this year just beat Atlanta,'" Brees said. "I think that's probably the sentiment of fans that are longtime Saints fans. Maybe longtime Falcons fans say the same thing to them about beating the Saints.
"I would say this, though, that if you look at the past four years, since Mike Smith's been there and Sean's been here, both teams have been up there as far as first or second in the division quite a few times. That's part of the reason why it's more competitive now than it ever has been."
Forget the days when the franchise's former figureheads at quarterback, the Saints' Archie Manning and the Falcons' Steve Bartkowski, had too little offensive help to field consistent winners.
Brees directs a deep Saints offense that features two of the NFL's top three in catches: running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees' other top weapons include receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson and running back Pierre Thomas.
The Falcons' offense can't match the Saints' No. 1 ranking, but it looked just as deep with last week's return of rookie receiver Julio Jones from a hamstring injury. Jones had 50- and 80-yard touchdown catches in a 31-7 win at Indianapolis. His emergence would make it more difficult for the Saints' defense to devise plans to contain receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, while also stopping running back Michael Turner.
Jones showed the explosive potential the Falcons expected when they moved up in the first round of this year's NFL draft to make the Alabama star the No. 6 overall pick. Despite missing two games with the injury, Jones already has three 100-yard games, two more than White, a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
"I think obviously if he could do that every week that would be great," Ryan said of Jones' two long touchdown catches. "We understand, those explosive plays aren't every week. He's done a great job the entire season. He continues to get better week in and week out. For a rookie, that's all you can ask for. His attitude, approach and preparation have been really, really good. I think he's doing a great job for us."
The Saints have won eight of 10 against the Falcons with Payton as the coach.
Payton, still recovering from a broken leg and knee injuries he suffered in a sideline collision on Oct. 17, said he will watch the game from the press box, but hopes he soon will return to the sideline.
Payton's bigger concern is his defense, which may be missing cornerback Tracy Porter (neck), linebacker Jon Vilma (knee) and nickel back Patrick Robinson (stomach pain).
Brees said this is the time for the Saints, who have lost their last two road games, to make a statement.
"I just think November's the month where there's separation between the good teams and elite," Brees said. "Just the good teams, the teams that are on their way to something special and the teams that are just hanging around. We don't want to be a team that's just hanging around. We want to be one of the elite teams, a team that you know exactly what to expect every time you step on the field, a consistent attack, a consistent approach."
Saints players celebrated on the Falcons' midfield logo following their win at the Georgia Dome last year.
"We just don't like each other," White said. "It's just like that. There's nothing about their team that we like. They don't like us. It's going to be an emotional game. It's going to be physical. It's going to be hard-fought. It's going to be tight. Everybody is going to be up for it. That's the kind of game that we like."