First, the securing of the division title.
Next, the jockeying for playoff position.
The latter location is where the New Orleans Saints (10-2) currently reside, having won the NFC South Division for the third consecutive season with their 26-18 victory over Atlanta on Thanksgiving night and, with four games remaining, moved into a tie with San Francisco (10-2) for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The Saints and 49ers will play Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in a game where the atmosphere will be as playoff-like as a Week 14 regular-season game can be.
“It’s definitely going to be that type of atmosphere,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “Last year when we played Pittsburgh here (a 31-28 Saints victory in Week 16, which clinched the No. 1 seed for New Orleans), it was that same type of feel. I expect nothing less.
“And I think for us, it’s the biggest game because it’s the next one. I think, obviously, we won our division and the next goal is to get home field throughout, and they’re standing in the way of that. So we’re going to go out there, execute our gameplan the best we can and play our style of football – physical, a lot of effort – and put ourselves in position to continue to chase that goal, which is being the No. 1 seed throughout.”
The Saints are familiar with the road, having traversed it last season. New Orleans didn’t clinch the division title as early in 2018, but the race for the No. 1 seed went down to the wire, with New Orleans holding off the Rams (13-3) by virtue of a victory in their regular-season game.
“Any time you can win the division, period, and move on to your next goal, it’s always a blessing,” Rankins said. “But when you can do it a little bit earlier than most other people would, you’re able to check that box and then you’re on to the next goal. Which, for us, is to continue to win, to get home field throughout. That’s the goal.
“Like I said, they’re standing in the way. For us it’s going to be about going in there and playing against a really good football team. When you watch them on tape, they’re talented at every level. They’ve got play-makers, they’ve got guys who can really change the game at just about every position. So for us, we’re going to have to be on it, we’re going to have to be on our P's and Q's and not allow dumb things and foolish things and mistakes and errors and penalties and different things like that to kind of reel us back.”
Coach Sean Payton said Monday those issues are ones that the Saints continue to address.
“The thing we talked about today is a number of things that we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Payton said. “I know we’re more than halfway through the regular season and yet, I feel like there’s a lot that we have to improve on in a short amount of time.
“We’ll be working on that this week, we’re playing a real good football team Sunday in San Francisco. The focus is going to be on this game, obviously, and improving in the areas that we haven’t been as good.”
Among those areas for the Saints: Cleanly fielding onside kicks. A 36-10, fourth-quarter lead with 4:33 left against Chicago was shaved to a 36-25 victory after the Bears scored with 2:31 left, recovered an onside kick, scored again with 48 seconds left, and nearly recovered another onside kick.
Against Atlanta, the Saints led 26-9 with 6:27 left and Atlanta scored a touchdown with 3:26 left, recovered an onside kick, kicked a field goal with 1:56 left to pull to within 26-18, and recovered another onside kick before New Orleans’ defense posted three sacks to help end the Falcons’ final drive.
“We’re going to have to fix that,” Payton said. “That’ll cost you a game. It almost cost us a game the other day. So we’ll do whatever it takes to get that corrected and look closely at what we’re doing and who’s doing it.”