Brian Allee-Walsh

Atlanta game should be good indicator where the Saints stand in the offseason

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) might have wrapped up his 2009 Heisman Trophy in the same stadium where he'll have an opportunity on Sunday to hit a significant milestone as a pro. Ingram needs 60 yards rushing in Atlanta to hit 1,000 for the first time since the New Orleans Saints selected him late in the first round of the 2011 draft.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) might have wrapped up his 2009 Heisman Trophy in the same stadium where he'll have an opportunity on Sunday to hit a significant milestone as a pro. Ingram needs 60 yards rushing in Atlanta to hit 1,000 for the first time since the New Orleans Saints selected him late in the first round of the 2011 draft. Associated Press

It truly is a shame the New Orleans Saints' season won't extend beyond Sunday.

They have been fun to watch; stressful, perplexing and mystifying at times, but still fun to watch.

They have an exciting, imaginative offense led by future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees, three top-shelf wide receivers in Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead IV, a budding 1,000-yard rusher in Mark Ingram and the Comeback Kid, Tim Hightower.

Their no-name defensive unit under coordinator Dennis Allen has been playing decent football since Thanksgiving and no longer is a league laughingstock.

Undrafted rookie kicker Will Lutz seems to have found his groove.

Overall, the Black and Gold has overcome an abysmal 0-3 start and developed into a respectable 7-8 team, despite what the sub-.500 record might suggest. It makes me think of the line in the movie "Jeremiah Johnson,'' when Bear Claw (Will Greer) and Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) met for the last time and share rabbit on the spit. "You've come far, Pilgrim,'' Greer tells Redford.

"It feels like far,'' Redford answers, staring off into the Rocky Mountain mist.

The 2016 Saints, too, have come far.

As we flip the calendar from 2016 to 2017, I wonder what the New Year will bring in terms of coach Sean Payton, who has four years remaining on a five-year $45 million contract unless owner Tom Benson decides to extend Payton beyond this decade.

Don't laugh. That has a better chance of happening than Payton being dealt to the Los Angeles Rams or some other God forsaken team in the coming days/weeks.

I wonder, too, if Brees' current contract status will become a bigger story/distraction during the offseason. He turns 38 onJan. 15 and hopes to exit this season on a healthy note. Contractually speaking, next season is scheduled to be his last in New Orleans. His current deal voids after the '17 season. He will count $19 million against the '17 salary cap.

I suspect the Brees story will remain a fluid situation fraught with uncertainty going forward.

But that's a story for another day.

On Sunday, sit back and enjoy what promises to be a compelling shootout between the newly-crowned NFC South champion Falcons against a surging Saints team on a two-game winning streak and trying to finish at 8-8.

A win ensures the Falcons of the No. 2 seed in the NFC, a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round. Quarterback Matt Ryan would love to enhance his league-MVP candidacy and leave media voters with a favorable lasting impression.

Plus, the matchup will mark the final regular-season NFL game played in the Georgia Dome before being demolished in the spring. A $1.4 billion retractable roof, multipurpose stadium is nearing completion in downtown Atlanta and scheduled to open for business next season. It will serve as the site of Super Bowl LIII in February 2019.

Sunday's game also features a handful of Saints subplots:

▪ Brees needs 148 passing yards yards to reach 5,000 for an unprecedented fifth time in his stellar 16-year NFL career. No other quarterback has done it more than once.

▪  Ingram needs 60 yards to join Deuce McAllister as the only Saints running backs to reach 1,000-yards rushing under Payton.

▪ Thomas needs 19 yards to join Cooks as 1,000-yard receivers this season; Snead needs a buck-87 to reach 1,000.

▪ Will this be the last we see of veteran right guard Jahri Evans, who'll become a free agent in March after 11 rock-solid seasons with the Black and Gold?

But I'm most interested to see how the Saints stack up against a quality, divisional opponent in what amounts to a meaningful game in Week 17.

I suspect both teams will play their starters throughout and are playing to win.

By game's end, we should have a better idea how far the Black and Gold "Pilgrim'' has come.

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