(SportsNetwork.com) - The playoffs start early in The Big Easy on Sunday when the New Orleans Saints play host to the Atlanta Falcons in a game that will go a long way in determining who represents the downtrodden NFC South in the postseason.
The Saints lead the NFL's worst division at 6-8 with two games to play but both Carolina (5-8-1) and Atlanta (5-9) remain in the mix with NOLA and the Falcons controlling their own destinies.
If either the Saints or the Falcons can win out, they will win the division and host a first-round playoff game. After this contest New Orleans will close the regular season at Tampa Bay in Week 17, while Atlanta will host the Panthers.
Carolina, meanwhile, entertains Johnny Manziel and Cleveland this week and needs to win their final two games and have the Saints lose once to repeat as division champions.
New Orleans can clinch the South for the first time since 2011 with a victory over the Falcons and a Carolina loss to the Browns.
"It sets us up for no bigger game than what's coming up against Atlanta," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
"We all understand where we're at," Atlanta coach Mike Smith countered. "We know we control our own destiny. It doesn't matter what anyone else does. The first thing we have to do is go down and play very well and win the game in New Orleans."
The Saints took over first place for now thanks to an impressive 31-15 win over the stumbling Bears in Chicago on Monday night.
Brees threw three touchdown passes in what was his 200th career game, completing 29-of-36 passes for 375 yards and setting an NFL record with his ninth straight season with at least 4,000 yards passing.
"I think there's a sense of urgency that we need to create each week, and we need to be mindful of how important that edge is to play well," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Josh Hill caught two scores, Marques Colston finished with five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown and Mark Ingram ran for a late score.
"We were pretty balanced and able to make some plays in the passing game," said Brees. "It was a great team effort."
The Falcons, meanwhile, suffered their second straight tough loss against a prolific offense, losing to Pittsburgh 27-20 as Le'Veon Bell scored twice and set the Steelers franchise record for yards from scrimmage.
Bell did not find much running room against an uncharacteristically stingy Atlanta front, but he did reach the end zone twice among 20 carries for 47 yards. He also made five catches for 72 yards and broke Barry Foster's single- season Steelers record for yards from scrimmage with 2,042.
Matt Ryan threw for 310 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for the Falcons, who were coming off a 43-37 shootout loss in Green Bay.
Harry Douglas filled in admirably for an injured Julio Jones, making 10 catches for 131 yards. Jones, who was coming off a career-high 259 yards against the Packers, was unable to play through a hip pointer injury he suffered late in a loss to the Packers.
"We felt we had lots of chances to have a different outcome," said Smith.
Atlanta leads the all-time series by a 47-43 margin, including a 37-34 overtime win back in September at the Georgia Dome when Ryan threw for a franchise-record 448 yards and three TDs, and Matt Bryant booted a game- winning 52-yard field goal in the extra frame.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brees has been the Falcons biggest nemesis ever since he came to New Orleans from San Diego back in 2006. The veteran signal caller has amassed a 7-1 mark over Atlanta in the Superdome, compiling a stellar 103.8 passer rating in those contests.
Of course Atlanta is hardly the only team that has had a difficult time containing Brees, who leads NFL with 43,091 passing yards and 314 TD passes since he took over the Saints.
The veteran destroyed the Bears, who rank 31st in the NFL in passing defense, on Monday night and the Falcons have the only secondary giving up more yardage than Chicago, a league-worst 292.5 yards per game.
'I think we've shown a couple times we can handle adversity, let's make sure we can handle success, too," Brees said. "The tendency after success is to relax, and it's not time to relax."
Brees threw for 333 yards in the loss in Atlanta earlier this season but was outdone by Ryan's Herculean performance, which may have to happen again here.
Ryan has been putting up big numbers recently, tossing for 1,046 yards and eight TDs over the last three weeks but has also been throwing the game- changing pick at inopportune times.
"We know what's in front of us," Ryan said. "We know what we've got to do. It's a playoff-type mentality. We've got to win next week. We've got to have the best week of practice that we've had this year and prepare as best we can."
Getting Jones, perhaps the best receiver in all of football, back should help. The All-Pro is second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards despite missing last week's game.
"It's tough when (Jones is) not in," Ryan said. "He's such a special player."
New Orleans' defense hasn't been much better than the Falcons' this season but did show a little life in Chicago, stopping a four-game string in which they had allowed at least 400 yards. The Saints' stop unit limited Jay Cutler and Co. to 278 total yards while amassing seven sacks and three interceptions.
Facing a Payton-coached team in the Superdome used to foreshadow certain demise but the Saints' 19-game run with the veteran coach on the sideline in NOLA ended against San Francisco on Nov. 8. Since then the Saints have lost three more in what used to be their cozy confines. Conversely they have won their only two on the road over that span.
Translation: you never know what to expect with this New Orleans team. If anything, though, the Falcons are even less consistent and just don't have the horses on defense to contend with Brees.
"You want to be playing for a lot at the end of the season and we are right now," Brees said. "No bigger game than the one coming up."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 27, Falcons 20