ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have margin for error.
They've already locked up a playoff spot. Even if they lose Monday night's game against New Orleans, they will merely need to beat a two-win Carolina team at home in the regular-season finale to lock up the division title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
But Atlanta (12-2) refuses to look at it that way. The Falcons want to send a message to the defending Super Bowl champions: We've already beaten y'all once in the Big Easy, and we can do it again — even two more times, since there's a distinct possibility the teams could meet again in the playoffs.
"You never want to leave any doubt," said Roddy White, the Falcons star receiver and chief provocateur. "That's the tone in our locker room. We want to beat these guys again, because we don't want to leave any doubt. You never want to lose to a team, then have them come back and play you again."
The Saints (10-4) merely need one more win — or a Tampa Bay loss or tie — to lock up a return to the playoffs.
But they'd really like to make up for that 27-24 loss to the Falcons in the opening month of the season, when Garrett Hartley missed a chip-shot field goal for the win and the Falcons took advantage by making their kick in overtime.
In other words, New Orleans is trying to send a similar message to its NFC South rival.
"Both of us think we're two of the better teams in the NFC," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Down the line here, within the next few weeks if everything goes our way and their way, we could potentially see them again."
Atlanta comes in with an eight-game winning streak, its longest run since reaching the only Super Bowl in franchise history during the 1998 season.
The Falcons clearly believe they can make it back again, and they've sure put themselves in the best possible position with just two games left before the playoffs. One more win would ensure a first-round bye and mean they wouldn't have to play another game away from the Georgia Dome this season — unless they make it to Dallas for the title game.
Not a bad place to be, either. At home, the Falcons are 6-0 this season, 19-3 in Mike Smith's three years as coach and 19-1 with Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback.
"Obviously with the record we've been able to amass playing at home, it's an advantage for us," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We need to go out there and exploit it."
The Saints had hoped to come into this game with a shot at tying for the division lead, but a loss at Baltimore last week left them two games behind the Falcons with two to play. New Orleans has yet to lock up a playoff berth, either, and would prefer not to go into the season finale against Tampa Bay in a must-win situation.
"We've handled our business throughout the season," White said. "If we win this game ... then they've got to go beat Tampa Bay just to make the playoffs. There's no pressure on us. We've just got to go out there and play.
Those guys are ones trying to get into the playoffs."
The Saints are eager to get that little necessity out of the way as soon as possible, even though they're still likely to face a much tougher road to the Super Bowl than they had a year ago.
Road is the operative word here. Last season, New Orleans claimed its spot in the title game with a pair of playoff victories at the Superdome. This time, it's likely to be three road games standing in the way of a return appearance, even if the Saints knock off the Falcons.
Of course, winning in Atlanta would be good experience for what New Orleans could face in the postseason.
"We have to go on the road in a place they've played extremely well in. We have to find a way to win," Brees said. "Indeed, if that becomes our journey in the playoffs, say if we're a five seed on the road, we have to be able to go into hostile environments and win games in playoff atmospheres. This will be one of those atmospheres."
That buildup was heightened by White's bold tweets early in the week. First, in response to the comment of former quarterback-turned-TV analyst Trent Dilfer, the receiver said there was "no chance in hell the Aints come into the dome and win once."
When Saints defensive lineman Will Smith took issue at being called the "Aints" — and New Orleans fans let loose with a barrage of vile replies — White shot back with a tweet about "the grace of god" giving the Saints a championship so the "city (wouldn't) fall apart" after Hurricane Katrina.
White apologized for bringing up the storm that devastated New Orleans in 2005, but the Saints clearly took note of his banter.
But at least the Falcons star won't have to worry about a hostile crowd on Monday night.
"They would probably throw some things at me" if we were playing in New Orleans, White said, breaking into a smile. "That would be bad."
Atlanta will be playing at home for the first time since a Nov. 28 victory over Green Bay. The Falcons are eager to lock up their first division title since 2004 — and only the fourth division title in franchise history — in front of the home folks.
"We've been on the road for a long time," Gonzalez said. "It's going to be good to get back home."