ATLANTA — Talk about role reversal.
When Atlanta hosted New Orleans a year ago, the Falcons were cruising toward a division title and locking up home-field advantage in the playoffs, while the Saints just wanted to get to the end of a disappointing season.
The longtime rivals have traded places for Thursday's prime-time game.
With coach Sean Payton back on the sideline and Drew Brees as good as ever, New Orleans (8-2) leads the NFC South and hopes to chase down Seattle for the best record in the conference.
The Falcons, on the other hand, are trying to figure out how a team that started the season with Super Bowl aspirations is now in the running for the top pick in next year's draft. Mired in a four-game losing streak and coming off a humiliating loss to lowly Tampa Bay, Atlanta (2-8) is all but assured its first losing season since 2007.
"I know how difficult it is to win in our league," Payton said, "and I know how often these games come down to the final plays, making a play in the end and having a chance to win a game."
The Saints staggered to a 7-9 mark last season while dealing with the bounty scandal and Payton being suspended for the year. But they've bounced back to reclaim the top spot in the division, setting the tone with an opening 23-17 victory over the Falcons in September, a game that came down to a defensive stop inside the 10 in the final minute.
"Every win is a confidence builder," Brees said. "Obviously with just the hype going into the season, you know the type of momentum that can be gained from a game like that."
Atlanta went the opposite way.
After at least playing respectably in the early going, with their first four losses by a total of 19 points, the Falcons have been outscored 135-61 during their current skid. The margin really isn't that close, either. Last week, they fell behind the Buccaneers 38-6, managing to score three meaningless touchdowns that made the final score look a bit less embarrassing, 41-28.
"Adversity shows the character of a man," running back Steven Jackson said. "We're going to find out a lot about this locker room. Who loves the game, who doesn't?"
Brees will be looking for makeup for one of the worst games of his career when he returns to the Georgia Dome, where he was picked off five times last year in a 23-13 loss.
"That wasn't a good day," he said. "You want to kind of get past that and get on to better things."
Here are five things to look for when the Saints visit the Falcons:
SPREADING IT AROUND: Brees makes things tough on opposing defenses by relying on myriad receivers. Thirteen players have at least one catch for the Saints, and Brees hooked up with 11 receivers in last week's victory over San Francisco. If the Falcons can't get some pressure on Brees, he'll likely pick apart a secondary that features two rookie cornerbacks.
NEW-LOOK FALCONS: With an eye on next season, the Falcons have started shaking things up. Last week, Peter Konz moved to guard and Joe Hawley took over at center on the embattled offensive line, which will have its hands full against the aggressive Saints. Coach Mike Smith plans to continue giving the backups more snaps, with running back Antone Smith the most likely candidate for an increased role. He rushed for 88 yards on just two carries against the Bucs, including a 50-yard TD.
ROAD HAZARDS: While the Saints have the second-best record in the NFC, they haven't exactly looked like world beaters outside of the Superdome. New Orleans is 6-0 at home, but four of the final six games are on the road. "It's not like we dread going on the road. Not one bit," Brees insisted. Indeed, since Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints are 35-25 away from the Big Easy.
DOUGLAS EMERGES: There hasn't been much to cheer about in Atlanta, but receiver Harry Douglas has been a bright spot. With Julio Jones out for the season and Roddy White struggling to bounce back from injuries, Douglas has gotten a chance to shine with three 100-yard receiving games the past five weeks. "You'd rather be winning these games," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "But one of the silver linings is the play of Harry."
WHITE'S MOMENT: The Saints lost starting cornerback Jabari Greer to a season-ending knee injury against the 49ers, costing the defense a 10-year veteran who was a leader both on the field and in the locker room. Into the void steps Corey White, a second-year player from Samford. He had an interception after replacing Greer, but fumbled it back to San Francisco trying to dive for the end zone.