It isn’t over in the NFC South yet but the King has been dethroned.
The rematch proved to be no match at all Sunday as the New Orleans Saints clinched a playoff berth and remained the team to beat in the division with a wire-to-wire 23-13 victory over the dfending champion Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The victory ensures the Saints of their first trip to the playoffs since 2013 and they have their gritty, no-name defense to thank.
Despite losing defensive starters Kenny Vaccaro and A.J. Klein to season-ending IR last week, the Saints twice held Atlanta scoreless from inside their 2-yard line, forced two takeaways, registered five sacks and allowed only 2-of-13 conversions on third down.
And while Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones caught seven passes for 149 yards, the Saints defense neutralized the Falcons’ dynamic running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who combined for 108 yards from scrimmage but no points.
Freeman lost a fumble at the Saints 1 in the third quarter and got stopped on fourth down at the New Orleans 1 in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense was magnificent; the difference in the game,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The Saints avenged a 20-17 loss at Atlanta in Week 14, a game during which the Falcons held a lopsided 9-0 edge in first downs via penalties. Afterward, Payton questioned the officiating, calling it “extremely poor’’ and “inconsistent.’’
Overall, it was not one of Payton’s finest moments. In addition to the crushing loss, he also was fined $10,000 by the league office for unsportsmanlike conduct and he embarrassed himself by making a choke gesture toward Freeman in reference to the Falcons historic collapse in Super Bowl LI.
Payton later texted his apologies to Freeman but stood his ground with the game officials.
Payton acquitted himself well on the sideline Sunday. But there may have been a trickle-down effect in Sunday’s rematch from his criticism of the officiating in Game 1. The Falcons were flagged 10 times for minus 91 yards Sunday — New Orleans three for 30 — and had no first downs via penalties.
Truth be told, the Falcons (9-6) could be accused of choking Sunday. They never really mounted much of a challenge under reigning league-MVP quarterback Matt Ryan against an injury-riddled Saints defense in the biggest game of the year.
The Saints were within a whisker of clinching the division championship but Carolina eked out a last-minute 22-19 victory against Tampa Bay, leaving New Orleans and the Panthers tied atop the NFC South with 11-4 records heading into the final week of the regular season.
The Saints own the tiebreaker over Carolina by virtue of sweeping their season series. They can win the title outright with a win over the Buccaneers on New Year’s Eve or a loss by Carolina at Atlanta.
Look for the Black and Gold to get crowned Sunday in Tampa.
Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.