METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints can win their third consecutive NFC South championship by beating the Falcons on Thursday night in Atlanta.
In order to do so they will have to play much better than they did against the Falcons just 18 days earlier.
Both teams were coming off a bye. The Saints had won six games in a row and the Falcons had lost six in a row.
But Atlanta shut down New Orleans’ running game, harassed Drew Brees and had their best rushing game of the season in a thorough 26-9 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“They came out and played good football,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “They were able to hit us in the mouth. Anytime that happens you look forward to the chance to get that back. I’m sure (that loss) will provide a little extra fuel to the fire.”
New Orleans (9-2) bounced back with a victory at Tampa Bay (31-17) and another at home against Carolina (34-31) last Sunday to guarantee a winning season and put them on the verge of clinching a playoff spot.
“Our players understand the importance of getting this next win,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “but we also know it’s a tough road game in the division and we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did the last time.”
New Orleans was penalized 12 times for 90 yards against Atlanta, which gained six first downs via penalty.
The Saints didn’t do much better against Tampa Bay, getting penalized nine times for 76 yards, then did even worse against Carolina, being penalized 12 times for 123 yards.
“It’s concerning. It’s troubling,” Payton said. “I mentioned it in the staff meeting. There are a handful of them I would disagree with. That’s going to be the case each week and we’re going to play a different opponent down the road and it’s going to cost us in a bigger game. We’ve got to work on that. And that starts certainly with me and our staff. That is something that we have to definitely improve on.”
The Saints have improved on offense, scoring their second-highest point total of the season in both of the games since the loss to the Falcons.
Michael Thomas remains the NFL’s leading receiver and is on pace to break the single-season record for receptions. Tight end Jared Cook has caught a touchdown in four of his last five games and against the Panthers he matched one season-high with six catches and set another with 99 receiving yards.
Alvin Kamara had 102 yards from scrimmage and Latavius Murray’s 26-yard touchdown run gave New Orleans a touchdown on its first possession of a game for the first time this season.
“We’re clicking now and we’re moving and we’re getting things done,” Cook said.
The Falcons (3-8) looked like that might be turning their season around after the win against the Saints when they went to Carolina the next week and won 29-3.
But they returned home last Sunday and lost to Tampa Bay, 35-22. They had not allowed a touchdown in 10 consecutive quarters, but the Buccaneers scored four in the game’s first 35 minutes.
They had 11 sacks in the two wins, but none against Tampa Bay.
They allowed four sacks in the two wins, but gave up a season-high six against the Buccaneers.
They rushed for a season-high 143 yards against the Saints, but just 54 against the Panthers and 57 against the Buccaneers.
That makes six times this season that they have rushed for fewer than 60 yards in a game this season.
“We knew what the formula was for two games,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said.
“It didn’t carry over. When we got away from that formula, we saw what the results were. We’ve got to be able to recapture all three phases playing together.”
Atlanta has lost its last four home games.