ATLANTA — On the verge of clinching their division before December, the Atlanta Falcons don’t look so dominant when their longest, most intense rival is on the field with them.
The New Orleans Saints have won four straight and 11 of 13 in the series, including a 31-27 home win over Atlanta on Nov. 11. It remains the only loss for the Falcons (10-1), who otherwise have dominated the NFC South race.
The Falcons, four games ahead of second-place Tampa Bay, can clinch the division if they beat the Saints on Thursday night and Denver beats the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Coach Mike Smith obviously hasn’t been talking about the division race to his players.
“I didn’t know that,” running back Michael Turner said when asked about the possibility the team could clinch the division. “You just focus on this week. We know nothing is guaranteed.”
The Saints (5-6) are playing to remain in the NFC wild-card race. New Orleans’ resurgence from its 0-4 start was derailed a bit with last week’s loss to San Francisco.
The game is a matchup of two of the NFL’s most productive quarterbacks.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is 31-4 in five seasons as a starter at the Georgia Dome. He set a career high with 411 yards passing with three touchdowns and one interception in the first game against the Saints this month, and will try to extend a streak of four straight games with at least 300 yards through the air.
The Saints’ recent dominance of the series began when Drew Brees joined them in 2006. He is 11-2 against the Falcons, averaging 302.8 yards passing.
Jimmy Graham had 146 yards receiving with two touchdowns in this season’s first game against Atlanta. Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez also had two touchdown catches in the matchup of elite tight ends.
Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said the secondary must play tighter coverage on Graham and the Saints’ receivers.
“We feel we can have guys draped on him and make it hard for Drew to put the ball in there,” DeCoud said. “Granted, he’s a very, very accurate quarterback, but if we’re draped on receivers we can make those passes even more difficult than they already are.”
The good news for the Saints is they are only one game back in the wild-card race. Brees wouldn’t say this is a must-win game.
“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 would have moved into the last wild-card spot by beating the 49ers last week.
“I know there are about six or seven teams sitting there fighting for a spot or two,” Brees said. “It seems like all of those teams play each other, for the most part, whether they’re within the division or outside the division. If we take care of our business, we’re in. That’s the way we all feel.”
The Falcons couldn’t score after having a second down at the Saints 1-yard line late in the game. Ryan said it was a missed opportunity the team can’t have in its second chance against the Saints.
“The last time we played them, we fell short a little bit in the red zone,” Ryan said. “Playing against New Orleans, it’s imperative when you have opportunities in that part of the field, you have to take advantage of them and score touchdowns. I think that’s something I can do better and we can do better as a team.”
The missed opportunity prompted Falcons receiver Roddy White to say after the game, “It’s not like they came out here and won a game. I think we kind of gave it to them.”
Saints defensive end Will Smith didn’t take kindly to those words, saying this week that White “has a problem with just saying things without thinking before he says things.”
White didn’t talk with reporters this week.
Injuries are a concern for each team, especially with little time for recovery after Sunday’s games.
The Falcons could have game-time decisions on as many as three defensive starters. Cornerbacks Asante Samuel (right shoulder) and Dunta Robinson (illness) and defensive tackle Peria Jerry (quadriceps) missed Tuesday’s practice.
The good news for Atlanta’s defense was last week’s return of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who missed three games, including the loss at New Orleans, with a right sprained ankle. Weatherspoon, one of the defense’s top playmakers, helped the Falcons limit Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin to 50 yards rushing on 21 carries last week.
New Orleans placed rookie right tackle Bryce Harris on injured reserve with a broken bone in his right leg on Tuesday. Harris started last week as a fill-in for Zach Strief (left groin). Strief’s backup, Charles Brown, was out with a right knee injury.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said the possibility of Strief playing against the Falcons “looks good.”