NEW ORLEANS — Next up, San Francisco.
And the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The New Orleans Saints clinched a playoff berth when they beat the Falcons 26-18 on Thursday night in Atlanta.
Their third consecutive NFC South championship guaranteed them a home playoff game.
“This was objective No. 1,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
But the Saints want more.
They want a bye.
And they want the top seed in the NFC.
At 10-2 they are one loss behind the NFC West-leading 49ers. They host the 49ers, who visit AFC North-leading Baltimore on Sunday, in their next game Dec. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
If they win that game, they will be atop the NFC with three games remaining.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Brees said. “We have a list of goals and objectives. We just want to knock them down one by one, but at the end of the day, let’s just keep it simple right now.
“Let’s just focus on playing our best football. I still think it’s out there on both sides of the ball. If we continue to do that and do better each week, we’ll see what happens.”
If the Saints are going to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC seed they will need to improve in some areas.
Penalties were a major problem against the Falcons as they have been in the four games since New Orleans’ bye. The Saints were penalized nine times for 121 yards against Falcons. They handed Atlanta five first downs via penalty, which they have done in each of those four games.
But they have mostly been able to overcome their penalty issues. Against the Falcons its was the defense creating three turnovers and sacking Matt Ryan nine times that contributed most to overcoming the penalties.
Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan had four of the sacks, including one on the Falcons’ final offensive play to seal the victory.
“It hurts because I could have had five,” Jordan said. “I’m trying to make these nights special. You only have so many opportunities available. We knew if we shut down the run, (Ryan) would have to pass. He’s got one of the fastest releases in the game. You take that run away, we’re going to get it.”
New Orleans, which allowed a season-high 143 rushing yards to the Falcons in a 26-9 loss 18 days earlier, allowed just 89 yards on 26 rushes in the rematch.
The Saints seemed to be coasting with a fourth-quarter lead that matched the score of Atlanta’s victory in the Superdome, but the Falcons scored 10 points in a 90-second span at the end.
Atlanta recovered three consecutive onside kicks, though one was negated by penalty. The last recovery presented an opportunity to tie at the end, but the Saints defense stiffened.
“It’s not good. It’s embarrassing. We’ve got to get it cleaned up,” Saints coach Sean Payton said while referencing an onside kick that Chicago recovered in New Orleans’ Week 7 victory. “It’s not the first time that this has happened now.
“We’ve got to get that cleaned up. We’ve got to make sure we understand what we’re telling them. Clearly after one or two of them, you saw it wasn’t going very deep and we’re still lined up 10 yards behind the (line) ... So we’ll get that cleaned up. That’s on us.”
But trying to fix problems is less bothersome after a win, especially one that clinches a division championship and gives you control of your chances of being the No. 1 seed in your conference.
“A lot of work goes into putting the right team together,” Payton said.
“It’s a challenging business. It’s all worth it when you win, you have a chance and you’re playing for something. It’s very difficult if you’re not winning.”