The first goal – win the division title – squarely is within sight for the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints (9-2) would win the NFC South for the third straight year with a victory over Atlanta (3-8) on Thanksgiving night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. New Orleans, which owns a four-game lead over second-place Carolina, never had won two straight division crowns before last year.
Division champions earn automatic playoff berths and at least one home playoff game, and though New Orleans clearly has loftier aspirations – the No. 1 seed in the NFC also is in sight, which would assure that every playoff game prior to the Super Bowl would be a home playoff game – the division title is first on the check list.
That, perhaps, shares the headline for New Orleans during the short week. Because just as much for the Saints is the memory that they were shut down by the Falcons three games ago, in a 26-9 home loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I think the players know, and we briefly touched on it last week,” Coach Sean Payton said about winning the division. “This week, you really are into this, ‘Be careful how much information you want to give.’
“I mean, yeah, the players know and yet, this week is about rest, recovery, the quick turnaround. There’s no elaborate presentation. Our players understand the importance of getting this next win, but we also know it’s a tough road game, in the division, and we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did the last time.”
The last time, the Falcons rolled up six sacks and kept the Saints out of the end zone on defense, while surrendering just 310 yards. And on offense, Atlanta ran for 143 yards, converted 6 of 15 times on third down and hogged possession for 33:46, areas in which the Saints had been dominant defensively during their six-game winning streak before the matchup.
“They came out and played good football,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “They were able to hit us in the mouth and anytime that happens, you do look forward to the chance to be able to get that back.
“But it’s still the next one up. It’s an important game because it’s the one in front of us. I’m sure that will provide a little extra fuel to the fire but in this league, you’ve got to play every game maxed out if you want to be successful.”
The abbreviated week of preparation only makes that more difficult, but the familiarity of the opponent helps.
“You know the personnel, you just met with your pro department relative to the last time and we get updated on injuries – both teams, I’m sure, will,” Payton said. “And then you’re looking at, what did we do poorly? What do we need to improve on? But I think it’s important that the focal point is allowing our guys to play fast and in a short period of time, getting them off their feet and rested as best we can.”
“That’s a huge bit of it, that we just played them two games ago,” Davis said. “A lot of that is still kind of close, to be able to recall into memory. But you still have to try to prepare as best you can, like it’s the first time you’re playing them. It definitely helps with a short week but we’ve still got a lot of preparation.”
A lot of preparation, in a short amount of time, with potentially a huge payoff at the end.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” tight end Jared Cook said. “I think everybody understands the task that is at hand, but we can’t let that overwhelm us, or let that be our sole focus.
“We have to focus on going in and getting this game, against a good Atlanta team that we already took an ‘L’ from earlier this season. The little things are really going to matter this week, especially it being such a short week. Really only two days of practice, we’ve got to have a mind-set and a focus that’s unmatched this week.”