After going a month without playing at the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta Falcons are one win away from not having to leave home again until a potential trip to the Super Bowl.
It has been more than a year since their last loss at home, when the New Orleans Saints took advantage of a banged-up Atlanta team.
The surging Falcons look to clinch their first division title in six years and secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs Monday night when they host the Saints, who are one win away from a postseason berth.
Playoff-bound Atlanta (12-2) has a two-game lead over New Orleans (10-4) in the NFC South, needing either a victory this week or a home win over lowly Carolina next Sunday to clinch the No. 1 overall seed.
The Saints’ chances of winning the division are far more bleak. They need to win this game, beat Tampa Bay in their regular-season finale and have the Panthers upset Atlanta. To earn a wild-card berth, however, New Orleans needs to win just one of its last two games or have the Buccaneers lose once.
“The next two games are very big. They don’t get any bigger,” Drew Brees(notes) said. “We control our own destiny, and we have a lot to play for. It’s too early to look at the playoff picture right now, but if we are a wild-card team, the road to the Super Bowl will be on the road.”
It also could go through Atlanta, where the Falcons are averaging 28.2 points in their six wins this season.
While Atlanta is the NFC’s only undefeated team at home, it also has proved it can win on the road. The Falcons have won eight in a row overall and the last three have come away from home, including last Sunday’s 34-18 victory over Seattle.
Atlanta now plays in front of its home fans for the first time since beating Green Bay on Nov. 28 with the chance to win its first South title since 2004.
“It is going to be a great atmosphere in the Dome,” said Ryan, who had three touchdowns and an interception last weekend. “I think everybody is looking forward to it.”
Not only are the Falcons eager to return home, they’re looking to exact some revenge from the last team to beat them there.
The Saints won 26-23 in Atlanta on Dec. 13, 2009, as Garrett Hartley(notes) hit a 38-yard field goal with 4:42 remaining to help New Orleans move to 13-0. Hartley missed a 29-yard attempt in overtime before Matt Bryant(notes) hit a 46-yarder to give the Falcons a 27-24 win at the Superdome in Week 3.
Although the Saints won their last visit to the Georgia Dome, the Falcons started Chris Redman(notes) at quarterback with Ryan sitting out because of a toe injury, and Michael Turner(notes) didn’t play because of an ankle injury.
Atlanta is considerably tougher to beat at home with Ryan under center.
Ryan has won 15 straight in Atlanta since a loss to Denver on Nov. 16, 2008, and is 19-1 all-time at the Georgia Dome, tied with Danny White for the best winning percentage in a player’s first 20 home starts in the Super Bowl era. In six home games this season, Ryan has thrown for 1,545 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.
New Orleans typically receives similarly gaudy passing numbers from its quarterback, especially on Monday nights.
Brees has led the Saints to victories in their last four Monday games, completing 75.8 percent of his passes for 1,256 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception for a quarterback rating of 141.5.
The three-time All-Pro joined Peyton Manning(notes) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons by passing for 267 in last Sunday’s 30-24 loss to Baltimore.
The Saints had their six-game winning streak snapped and failed to score 30 points for the first time in six contests, but the team isn’t worried.
“From a confidence standpoint, it’s unwavering for us,” said Brees, who had at least one interception for the 10th straight game. “We’re as confident as any team out there and we know how good we can be and how great we can be.”
One area in which New Orleans might be a bit concerned, however, is with its run defense. The Saints allowed a season-worst 208 yards rushing last Sunday, and they gave up 202 to Atlanta in September.
Turner, averaging 104.6 rushing yards with five touchdowns in his last five games, ran for 114 yards in the first meeting. He’s amassed 422 rushing yards with four TDs in four games against New Orleans with the Falcons.