Brian Allee-Walsh

Saints' victory allows Falcons to win NFC South Division crown

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) breaks past Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (28) on a long pass play.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) breaks past Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (28) on a long pass play. Associated Press

The New Orleans Saints gave the Atlanta Falcons an early -- and totally unexpected -- Christmas present Saturday.

It comes special delivery from the Big Easy, a gift-wrapped 31-24 victory over the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Tampa Bay Buccaneers that makes the Falcons the undisputed champions of the NFC South heading into the final week of the regular season.

Despite the crushing loss inside the half-filled Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Bucs (8-7) remain alive for the second wildcard berth in the NFC.

The Saints (7-8) learned they had been officially eliminated from playoff contention prior to Saturday's kickoff by virtue of earlier victories by Green Bay and Washington, essentially leaving the Black and Gold to play the role of spoilers against the Buccaneers.

And New Orleans played the part of Scrooge extremely well, avenging a 16-11 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 14.

"It wasn't perfect by any means, but we did a lot of things well,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said afterward with owner Tom Benson on hand at the post-game press conferrence in recognition of Payton's 100th overall win in New Orleans.

The victory also represents Payton's 94th in the regular season, eclipsing coach Jim Mora's franchise record of 93 (1986-'96).

"Great coach, great game,'' Benson exclaimed.

"It was good to get a win for (Benson),'' Payton acknowledged.

Two players came up huge for the Saints -- running back Mark Ingram and safety Jairus Byrd.

Ingram rushed 18 times for a game-high 90 yards, including touchdown runs of 6 and 14 yards and a two-point conversion that helped the Saints build a 28-14 advantage in the third quarter.

Byrd twice picked off passes thrown by Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, resulting in Byrd's first INTs of the season and giving a glimpse of why Saints officials signed him to a blockbuster six-year, $54 million free-agent contract in 2014.

Ingram acquitted himself well, bouncing back with a vengeance from an embarrassing sideline outburst during the fourth quarter of the Saints' 48-41 victory at Arizona in Week 15. He ran angry thoughout Saturday's game and sealed the win with a 10-yard burst on third-and-1 from the Buccaneers' 36.

It now sets up what promises to be an intriguing final week of the regular season in the NFC South.

On New Year's Day, the Buccaneers face a must-win situation at home against the Carolina Panthers (6-9) while the Saints visit the freshly-crowned Falcons (10-5) at the Georgia Dome.

With a victory against the Saints, the Falcons can claim the coveted No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs.

I suspect Atlanta has no intention of repaying the Saints for Saturday's gift.

I also suspect the Saints will no longer be in a giving mood.

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