Falcons, Saints eager for a rivalry game that might also decide who wins the NFC South


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The regular season-ending matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints symbolizes the NFL’s efforts to promote parity.

Neither team has a winning record, yet both are still playing meaningful football. The Falcons (7-9) and Saints (8-8) remain mathematically alive for an NFC playoff spot heading into their meeting in the Superdome on Sunday.

“Thankfully, luckily, we still got a chance,” Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu said.

Winning the game won't be enough by itself. But if Tampa Bay (8-8) slips up at Carolina (2-14), the winner of the Falcons-Saints game will win the NFC South.

If the Buccaneers win, the Falcons, who've lost three of their last four, will be eliminated. The Saints, however, would still have a path to a wild-card spot with a win over Atlanta and losses by both Seattle and Green Bay.

“The thankful thing for us is at least we have an opportunity,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “A little bit is obviously out of our control, but what we do control is a huge game. Prepare for the Saints. Go down there Sunday and let’s see what happens.”

Mathieu, who grew up in New Orleans, conceded he'd become “nervous” the Saints might slip out of playoff contention in early December after they'd lost three straight and five of seven.

“Any time you lose two or three games in a row, you can kind of see your goals slipping away from you,” Mathieu said.

The Saints lost six games this season by eight or fewer points. The lengthy and ongoing injury-related absences of key players, including cornerback Marshon Lattimore and receiver Michael Thomas, haven't helped.

But rather than regret what might have been, Mathieu emphasized how much better than the alternative it has been to show up for work this week knowing that all is not lost — at least, not yet. And that's because the Saints have won three of their past four.

“It's a damn good feeling, given everything we've kind of been through — the injuries and the late-game collapses,” Mathieu said. "It's cool to be in this position."


While the Saints have been increasingly pleased by quarterback Derek Carr’s play during the past month, there's uncertainty at quarterback for Atlanta, where Taylor Heinicke has alternated with Desmond Ridder this season.

With Ridder benched last month for the second time this season, Heinicke made his second straight start at Chicago in Week 17. Heinicke completed 10 of 29 passes for 163 yards in snowy and windy conditions, and was intercepted three times during a lopsided loss to the Bears.

After Heinicke left the game with an ankle injury that has clouded his status for this week, Ridder threw another interception.

“It’s been an up and down year. There certainly has been change in that (QB) room,” Smith said, but added that he still has faith in whoever takes the field in New Orleans.

Carr hasn't missed a start, but has been knocked out of three games this season with shoulder and rib injuries, along with two concussions. At times his play was so erratic he was booed by fans in the Superdome.

But he has played some of his best football during the past month, completing 73% of his passes for 853 yards and 10 touchdowns while being intercepted just twice.

"He’s been performing much better over the last month,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. "I think a lot of that is health related.”


Smith said he won’t ask his players to ignore any scores posted on the scoreboard, especially Tampa Bay’s game at Carolina.

“Again, everybody’s personality is different,” Smith said. “That’s not going to affect how the game goes for us. ... Obviously, if you win, you’re gonna want to know if you’re playing next week or not. But no, that doesn’t bother me.”

Allen would rather his team block out news around the league while they're playing.

“None of those other things matter if we don’t take care of business,” Allen said. “What we do control is how we go out and play against Atlanta.”


The Falcons have given rookies such as safety DeMarcco Hellams, cornerback Clark Phillips III and defensive lineman Zach Harrison bigger roles in the second half of the season.

Hellams and Phillips have moved into the starting lineup while sharing time with safety Richie Grant and cornerback Jeff Okudah. Harrison has all of his three sacks this season in the last three games.

“When you look at a kid like (Harrison), you know he got better this year,” assistant head coach for defense Jerry Gray said. “And he’s going to continue to get better. We’ve got some guys doing the same thing. Clark’s going to get better. DeMarcco’s going to get better. I mean, you can see that those young guys are actually getting better.”

The development of Harris was especially important after the Falcons lost top defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and Kentavius Street to injuries.