Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-3)
1. Are the Saints in Mike Smith's head? It's one of the most lasting moments of the 2011 season so far: Faced with a 4th-and-1 in his own territory in overtime against the Saints, Falcons head coach Mike Smith opted to go for it. The decision backfired -- New Orleans stuffed an Atlanta run play, took over possession and kicked a game-winning field goal.
It was a highly-discussed move by Smith, and one that didn't show off a huge amount of confidence in his defense to slow Drew Brees and the Saints' offense. You can hardly blame him for that stance, given what New Orleans has done with the ball this season, but you have to wonder how Smith feels about that Falcons' D-vs.-Saints' O matchup these days.
More than a month later, that game stands as the difference in the NFC South. New Orleans has a two-game cushion on the second-place Falcons and can wrap up the division with a win Monday night.
But that also means Atlanta's got one last chance to turn the division around, not to mention the first of two opportunities (with Week 17 being the other) to sew up a playoff berth of its own. Anyone expecting Smith to play it safe under those circumstances, especially given what happened back in Week 9, is probably in for a rude awakening.
You can expect the full bag of tricks to be in play Monday night for the Falcons, from going for it on 4th-and-short to a fake punt to whatever else Smith's mind can cook up.
2. The Roddy White-Julio Jones tandem is clicking. Mostly because of injuries to Julio Jones -- and because the Falcons' offense has had some head-scratchingly average performances -- Atlanta hasn't always gotten the huge production it envisioned out of its No. 1/No. 2 receiver duo.
But Jones seems to have turned a corner, both from a health standpoint and in production. He's put up 257 yards and three touchdowns over the past three games and has shown that deep burst that Atlanta liked when drafting him.
"He's had some plays I'm sure he'd like to have done better, but that's him maturing, and understanding what the NFL is all about," Matt Ryan said after Jones' two-TD performance on Dec. 11 against Carolina. "He's worked real hard, and has been into it, and has done everything you could ask for from a rookie."
Jones had just nine yards receiving in the first meeting between these two teams this season, while Roddy White picked up 62. For the Falcons to have a shot at the upset Monday night, both of those numbers will have to be higher. Given the progress the Atlanta offense has made in recent weeks, it would not be a surprise to see that happen.
3. Darren Sproles gets a shot at redemption. Jones wasn't the only one to struggle through 2011's first Saints-Falcons matchup. New Orleans running back Darren Sproles had his worst game of the season by far in that 27-24 Saints win, gaining just three total yards on six touches (two carries, four receptions).
He did have 84 return yards, but the Falcons completely eliminated him from New Orleans' offense. And considering Sproles has tallied more than 1,100 yards combined rushing and receiving since coming to New Orleans, it's fair to say that Sproles hasn't had too many performances like that one.
The Saints won in spite of Sproles' struggles during that opening showdown with their division rivals. But Sproles has been such a key component in New Orleans' offense that it's hard to envision another victory if the dynamic running back can't get it going.
Now in his third season in the league, Malcolm Jenkins has become a linchpin on the New Orleans' defense. He started 15 games for the Saints last season and has been in the starting lineup every for game this year, recording 76 tackles and breaking up seven passes.
He'll have his hands full Monday night, as the Saints welcome the explosive Falcons to New Orleans. With a win, the Saints would wrap up the NFC South title and stay in contention for a first-round playoff bye.
Jenkins talked with SI.com about the key's to Monday's game ... and added a little prediction about his Ohio State Buckeyes:
The Saints already have a playoff spot locked up. How much importance are you placing on seeding and where you'll end up once the playoffs start?
Well, this is a huge game for us. Our No. 1 goal every year is to win the division, and we have a chance to do that, so everything's riding on this game. After this game, we'll look what kind of position we're in, in terms of the No. 2 seed and everything, but we're focused on winning the division.
Every game you've played against the Falcons in your career has been close and gone right down to the wire. Does it change your mindset at all heading into one of these games knowing that it probably won't be decided until the fourth quarter?
Everything's amplified. Like you said, every game I've played in has been close -- gone to overtime, been within three points. You know every mistake is amplified, everything you do is worth double, basically. It makes you prepare harder and focus a little harder. It's fun that way.
You've seen this Atlanta offense once this year already. What's Julio Jones add to it?
Julio brings that downfield threat. They have Roddy White and Julio on opposite sides, so they can almost pick their poison, and make (the defense) decide which one you'll lean to. Julio does a great job and keeps the defense honest.
You mentioned Roddy White. Atlanta also has guys like Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Jones ... Can you key on any one player when you go up against the Falcons' offense?
First off, they function best when they're balanced running and passing. So Michael Turner's the biggest factor -- you want stop the run and make them be one dimensional. They have a great quarterback, threats in the passing game -- Julio Jones, Roddy, Gonzalez, Harry Douglas is having a good year -- so it's still tough to stop that, even when they get one dimensional. But you want to take away the run game first.
As good as Atlanta's offense is, your offense in New Orleans is on the verge of setting the record for most yards gained in a single season. How much does it help your defense knowing that you're probably going to get 20 or 30 points to work with on any given night?
It's comforting. If we do give up a drive or a play here, the game's not necessarily in jeopardy. They find the same thing with us -- when they do make mistakes, we don't flinch. I think our third-down defense has been critical the last couple weeks. We've been getting off the field, which gets more opportunities for our offense.
Since you're an Ohio State guy, I can't let you go without asking how long it'll take Urban Meyer to win a championship there.
Well, they (the NCAA) banned us from a bowl game next year. So, 2013.
So they would have won next year, if not for the bowl ban?
(Laughs) Yea, I guess so.
Drew Brees needs just 305 passing yards to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084, set back in 1984. Brees might not be the only QB to top Marino's mark this season, either -- Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers are all within 725 yards on the current record.
But Brees looks like he'll be the first quarterback to get up and over the 5,084-yard plateau.
"I'm aware that we're close (to the record)," Brees told The Associated Press after last week's win over Minnesota. "I just know if we keep doing what we're doing all of that stuff will take care of itself."
Brees' passing prowess, though, is only the tip of the iceberg for the Saints offense, which is on the verge of becoming one of the most explosive in NFL history. With 6,394 yards New Orleans has a chance to break the 2000 St. Louis Rams' single-season team record for most yards gained.
Here are how the Saints stack up against the NFL's all-time great offenses in that category:
(*Two games remaining)
This has the potential to be the best game of Week 16 and could follow the Saints' Week 10 overtime matchup onto the list of the season's more entertaining evenings. Do the Falcons have enough to stay with New Orleans on the road? The Saints' shaky defense should let Atlanta hang around, but we all know what Brees and company are capable of.
Settle in for an entertaining one. The Saints will be celebrating a win and a division title by the end.
Saints 35, Falcons 24
Last week's pick: Patriots 31, Broncos 27Last week's result: Patriots 41, Broncos 23SI.com season record: 11-4