Brian Allee-Walsh

Either Saints or Falcons will walk away with early Christmas gift

Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh
Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh Biloxi

NEW ORLEANS

Christmas Eve Sunday is upon us, and I suspect all God’s creatures big and small will be stirring inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

No one will be fast asleep in this big house, believe me.

It might only be Week 16 of the NFL regular season but the 98th meeting between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons is not just another game.

It is the Only Game in these parts.

Visions of the NFC South championship and a favorable playoff seeding are dancing in the collective heads of both franchises and their fan bases.

When the Black and Gold and Dirty Birds get together, the best team doesn’t always win but rather the team that plays the best on that given day.

Exhibit A:

In Week 14, the night of Dec. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons escaped with a 20-17 victory when the Saints failed to cash in from the red zone with 85 seconds remaining when quarterback Drew Brees threw an end-zone interception.

That one INT ultimately proved more costly than the three picks thrown by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who posted a dismal 55.2 passer rating.

“You have to keep focusing on what’s in front of you,’’ Ryan said. “That’s a key to success.’’

“We know the type of game this is going to be,’’ Brees said. “We just have to go out and execute to perfection.’’

In other words, the Saints plan to bring their “A’’ game.

That translates to a bend-but-don’t-break defense led by Pro Bowl end Cam Jordan and Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who’s expected to shadow Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones whenever possible. Two defensive starters were placed on IR this week -- middle linebacker A.J. Klein (groin) and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin) -- stressing a “next man up’’ approach to handle the Falcons dynamic running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and big-play wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

“A’’ game also means a prolific offense featuring chessmaster Sean Payton and four Pro Bowl selections -- wide receiver Michael Thomas, running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and, of course, Brees. They missed Kamara for all but six snaps in the first meeting between the teams after he exited with concussion-like symptoms.

Foot specialists -- kicker Wil Lutz and punter Thomas Morstead -- also figure prominently in the Saints “A’’ game plan.

Most pundits predict a Saints victory, largely because of Kamara’s presence and a rowdy home venue where they have won six straight games since losing their home opener to the New England Patriots in Week 2, 36-20.

One team will walk away from Sunday’s game with an early Christmas present. The winner is assured of a playoff berth; the loser remains in the playoff hunt. A Saints win and a loss by Carolina against Tampa Bay would give the Black and Gold their first division crown since 2011.

And now the bad news via Ebenezer Scrooge: A loss would eliminate the Saints from the division race, meaning the NFC South champion would be determined by the winner of the Week 17 game between the Panthers and Falcons.

Bah-humbug!

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