The New Orleans Saints are out of mulligans.
New Orleans put itself squarely behind the 8-ball with a disastrous 0-4 start before rebounding by winning five of six. That momentum was halted, however, by a Week 12 hiccup against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers in the Big Easy.
Things don't get any easier this week for the Saints, who must travel to 10-1 Atlanta on short notice for an important NFC South matchup.
"It's a quick turnaround for us," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. "We've got to get to their place, we've got to get prepared and we've got to put it all together. We've got a huge game on the road against the leader of our division. This is how you feel better, to go on and get a win."
Normally this might shake out well for New Orleans, the far more desperate team but this is also a revenge game for Atlanta, which suffered its only loss of the season in the bayou back on Nov. 11. The Falcons can also wrap up the NFC South with a win and a Tampa Bay loss or tie at Denver on Sunday.
"The margin for error is very slight right now. We've kind of used up our nine lives," Brees said. "So we've got to really bear down here and just understand what's at stake every time we step on the field."
Trailing by four, 31-27, with two minutes to play in the Big Easy earlier this month Matt Ryan led the Falcons down to the New Orleans 1-yard line before the Saints defense stiffened and kept Atlanta out of the end zone to secure the victory in Week 10.
Things didn't shake out as well last Sunday when the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick threw for a touchdown and ran for another, while Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner each returned interceptions for scores as San Francisco put a big dent in the Saints' playoff hopes with a 31-21 victory.
Brees, who has joined Brett Favre (nine) and Peyton Manning (six) as the only signal-callers with 30 touchdown passes in five different seasons, threw for 267 yards, three touchdowns and the two interceptions on 26- for-41 passing for the 5-6 Saints, but was mainly kept in check by a 49ers defense which racked up five sacks.
"I felt like we played well enough to win in a lot of areas," Brees said. "What's glaring is the two turnovers that resulted in touchdowns for them. That can't happen."
Marques Colston also became the Saints' all-time leader in touchdowns against San Francisco, finishing with 36 yards and a score on four receptions as New Orleans had its three-game win streak snapped.
Atlanta, meanwhile, has lived on the edge more than once this season and did so again last Sunday when Michael Turner barreled in for the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, as the Falcons escaped Raymond James Stadium with a 24-23 win over the Buccaneers.
The outcome gave Atlanta a stranglehold on the NFC South and ended Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak.
Ryan, coming off a five-interception performance against Arizona, turned it over twice but completed an efficient 26-of-32 for 353 yards, including an 80- yard touchdown heave to Julio Jones. Jones, who was listed as questionable because of a sore ankle, caught six passes for 147 yards.
"You can always count on a close game when you come down to play an NFC South game," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "That was a hard-fought game."
The Falcons lead the all-time series with the Saints 45-41 but the New Orleans has taken four straight and 11 of the past 13. The Saints also have won three straight at Atlanta, each by three points.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brees threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns scores against the Falcons earlier this month and is a gaudy 11-2 with a stellar 100.6 passer rating versus Atlanta since he joined the Saints in 2006. But as good as Brees is and has been against the Falcons, the New Orleans defense needs to step up against the high-powered Falcons.
The Saints' defense ranks last in the NFL, giving up 454.8 yards per game but has shown a few signs recently, stopping Atlanta on the goal line late a few weeks ago and allowing a season-low 375 yards against San Francisco.
Ryan has multiple weapons at his disposal and can beat you in a number of ways. Roddy White, who has the most receptions in the NFC since 2007 with 538, Jones, who has 12 catches for 203 yards in his last two games against NOLA, and Tony Gonzalez are all top-tier threats in the passing game while Turner, although a descending player, and scatback Jacquizz Rodgers can both be tough to deal with in the running game.
Overall the Falcons rank eighth in the NFL scoring at 26.7 points per game and sixth in total offense with 385.9 yards per game.
"They are a good football team," Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said when discussing the Falcons. "I take my hat off to them -- they are resilient. They play the Arizona Cardinals, throw five interceptions and have another turnover for a total of six and they find a way to win the game. They are very resilient. They are talented. Their record speaks for itself in who they are and what they are."
Conversely stopping Brees seems to always be a conundrum for Atlanta and could prove even tougher on Thursday since cornerback Asante Samuel and defensive tackle Peria Jerry are both looking like game-time decisions.
"They've done a good job all season long of just making plays in critical situations," Brees said when talking about the Falcons. "They've been able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback which has allowed them the opportunity to get a lot of turnovers and provide some opportunities to their offense. You just look them throughout the season, they've won a lot of close games and, obviously, have played very consistent throughout."
Samuel (shoulder) and Jerry (quad) both missed practice for a second consecutive day on Tuesday. Having Samuel, a big play guy outside the numbers is particularly important against a quarterback like Brees.
"We're going to have to go up to game time to see where he's at in making a decision on whether (Samuel is) going to be able to play or not," Smith said.
Historically the Falcons have all kinds of problems with Brees and you can bet they don't want to leave open the possibility of seeing him again in the playoffs.
"Every game is important," Brees said. "We're still in November. Listen, that doesn't lessen the sense of urgency. We understand how important this game is but we're not labeling it as anything other than the next game on a short week against arguably, according to records, the top team in the NFC and we have our work cut out for us."
The Saints may be far more desperate but Atlanta has plenty to play for also. The Falcons could deliver the death blow to New Orleans' faint playoff hopes this week while inching closer to the NFC South title. The short week and the lack of preparation also trends toward the home team. Meanwhile, Ryan is the only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win 31 of his first 35 starts at home.
"We played New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, so that game and their schemes are probably still fresh in our minds," said Ryan. "We've done this before. We know how to handle the short week. It's just going to take a good effort this week."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Saints 24