Welcome to December football in the NFL.
It simply is the best month of the regular-season, usually pitting divisional opponents and providing a portent of the upcoming playoffs.
And for the first time since 2013 the New Orleans Saints are playing a meaningful role in the unfolding drama.
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Sunday’s NFC South faceoff with division co-leader Carolina at 3:25 p.m. (Fox) inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is the closest thing to a playoff game for the Black and Gold since the 2013 season when they won the first road game in franchise history and reached the divisional round.
It also represents the most important home game for the Saints since they tamed the Detroit Lions 45-28 in a NFC wildcard game on Jan. 7, 2012.
In other words, this is virgin territory for the vast majority of Saints players who will take the field against a savvy, big-game opponent that played -- and lost to Denver -- in Super Bowl 50.
Lead Saints actors Drew Brees, Max Unger, Mark Ingram, Terron Armstead (if healthy), Cam Jordan, Thomas Morstead, Rafael Bush and former Panthers Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Klein, among others, can appreciate these potentially defining moments.
They have been there, done that, though the aforementioned Saints not so recently.
“The (Panthers) run the South a little bit,” said Ginn Jr., an 11-year veteran who played five of those seasons in Carolina (2015-’16, 2010 through ’12). “Over the years since I’ve been in this division, it seems to go through us (New Orleans) or through Carolina.’’
The stakes are high Sunday -- sole possession of first place in what has become the NFL’s most competitive division with four games remaining in the regular season.
A Saints win puts them solidly in the driver’s seat. A Panthers road win increases the Cam Newton-driven swagger exponentially.
“I’m not going to hide it,’’ Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I’m going to tell (his players) the truth: ‘Guys, there’s a lot riding on this.’ ‘’
“These next few weeks are going to be huge for us,” Klein acknowledged. “We’ve got Carolina this week, Atlanta, the Jets and then Atlanta again.’’
An equally important game involving a NFC South team kicks off in Atlanta at high noon Sunday. The sixth-seeded Falcons (7-4) host No. 2-seed Minnesota (9-2) in what amounts to an in-season playoff game.
Then, it starts all over again at 7:30 p.m.Thursday (NBC/NFLN/Amazon) when the Falcons and Saints square off on a national stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
Seventeen days later, on Christmas Eve, the Saints and Falcons will do it again inside the Superdome.
Ah, December football!
It’s worth the wait.
Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.