The New Orleans Saints’ unbeaten start has come entirely outside the NFC South, but a seventh straight victory could give them a crystal-clear path to a division title.
A Monday night win over visiting Atlanta would also match the best start in franchise history and keep the Saints alone atop the NFC, and the Falcons’ defense will need to improve quickly if it hopes to slow Drew Brees’(notes) high-powered attack.
A trip to Miami provided New Orleans with its stiffest test Sunday, and after spending most of their season playing from ahead, the Saints (6-0) erased a 21-point first-half deficit and scored 22 unanswered in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins 46-34.
One more win would match the 1991 Saints, the only time the club has begun 7-0, and the previous victory only served to confirm New Orleans’ claims that this season’s team is different from its previous offensive-minded versions - even though it still boasts the NFL’s top-ranked offense.
“Everyone thinks we’re a finesse team and we’re always up early, but here we showed that we can come from behind,” running back Mike Bell(notes) said. “There was a major (deficit) at halftime, and we came back, and persevered, and we stuck together.”
While Brees threw for 298 yards - just missing his fourth 300-yard game - and the Saints scored at least 45 points for the fourth time, New Orleans’ big-play defense helped bail out Brees after three interceptions.
Safety Darren Sharper(notes) scored his third touchdown of the season on his sixth interception, while cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) also returned his pick for a TD to seal the win in the closing minutes.
“Our mentality on this defense is, ‘Why can’t we make a big play and score?’ and we did that,” linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) said. “Obviously you only get so many possessions in a game for your offense and if you can score on defense, that is a huge momentum swing.”
New Orleans also has the third-ranked rushing offense, scoring three touchdowns on the ground against Miami.
The Saints’ biggest immediate challenge may be getting accustomed to their success. Despite New Orleans’ positioning, coach Sean Payton said his team is more concerned with staying focused than talking about postseason seeding.
“We have a lot of football that we have to play and we don’t take that for granted,” Payton said. “We understand why there is interest in a team that’s 6-0, and yet we do understand that we’re still two games away from being at the halfway point.”
While a potential bye and home-field advantage may be further off, New Orleans can think seriously about the South title if it beats the Falcons and takes a three-game lead in the division.
With Carolina and Tampa Bay struggling, Atlanta (4-2) seems like the Saints’ primary threat, and the Falcons will be eager to rebound from Sunday’s disappointing 37-21 loss at Dallas.
“If we’ve got any chance of winning the division, I think the guys in the locker room know this is a big game for us,” running back Michael Turner(notes) said. “We don’t want to fall three games behind. In the NFL it’s tough to catch up once you fall that many games behind and they have a win on you already. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to pull off this win on Monday.”
“We stopped the run for the most part,” defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux(notes) said. “We just couldn’t get after them enough on our third downs and our pressure rushes. Those are some things we’ve got to get better on, especially this week with Drew Brees, one of the best quarterbacks in the league passing the ball right now.”
The Falcons’ running game has also been slowed, with Turner averaging 3.4 yards per carry - more than a yard less than last season, when he ranked second in the NFL with 1,699 rushing yards and helped lead Atlanta to a surprising playoff berth.
Matt Ryan(notes) has also thrown four interceptions in the last two contests, the most in any two-game stretch in his young career. The Saints had trouble containing Ryan last season, when he threw for 563 yards in two meetings.
New Orleans has won seven of eight at the Superdome dating to last year, beating Atlanta 29-25 on Dec. 7.