It’s very likely the Atlanta Falcons’ first playoff game will be their toughest of the postseason, because all signs point to it being against the New Orleans Saints.
As they enjoy the bye week that comes with being the NFC’s top seed, the Falcons will watch intently to see if the No. 6 Packers beat the No. 3 Eagles on Sunday, because if they don’t, a third meeting of the season with the Saints is all but inevitable.
As a top seed, the Falcons will play the lowest remaining seed on Jan. 15 at the Georgia Dome. No. 5-seeded New Orleans travels to play No. 4 seed Seattle — a team the Saints beat 34-19 in November — and a Saints victory against the 7-9 Seahawks is the closest thing to a guarantee you’ll see in an NFL playoff game.
For our purposes here, let’s just assume it’s another Saints-Falcons showdown at the Dome in two weeks.
If the Falcons win that game, the momentum will be in place for them to roll into their second-ever Super Bowl in franchise history, because they’re not going to face a tougher opponent in the NFC.
The Saints head into the playoffs having lost two of their last three games, but they’re still the most dangerous team in the NFC. The win sandwiched between losses to Baltimore (on the road) and Tampa Bay in the season finale was the Falcons’ only home defeat of the season. And when it became clear last week the Falcons would beat Carolina and eliminate New Orleans from NFC South title contention, the Saints benched their starters against a Buccaneers team fighting for the last playoff spot. Not to mention, Baltimore won the AFC North.
And bottom line: The Saints are the defending champions.
Of course, a win over the Saints wouldn’t guarantee the Falcons a trip to Dallas because the Eagles, Bears or Packers would present difficult challenges. But a win over none of those teams — except a win over Vick and the Eagles in the NFC championship game — would mean as much to the Falcons or their fans. And a win over the Saints would give the Falcons the test they need before a potential matchup with the Eagles in the NFC Championship.
But the Falcons can’t afford to look past the Saints. Both regular season meetings were decided by three points. The first should have gone in the win column for the Saints, but their kicker couldn’t make a 29-yard chip shot in overtime. And though the Falcons will have the home-field advantage, both wins in the series came from the visiting team this season, and that includes the Saints’ 17-14 win in Atlanta last Monday.
The deciding factor could be the Falcons coming off a week’s rest before their Jan. 15 game; Atlanta has won its last seven games following a bye.
There are all kinds of arguments that could be made against the Falcons making the Super Bowl (most of their 13 wins have been underwhelming, most NFC playoff teams are more talented, etc.), but a win over the Saints to start the playoffs will put all those arguments to rest.
A win would give the Falcons a wave of confidence that could even lead them to beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Of course, the Saints can’t look too far ahead themselves. Before they can plan for another dreaded trip to the Georgia Dome, they have to make a dreaded trip to the rain-heavy, depression-inducing city of Seattle. And a loss to the Seahawks isn’t unimaginable because an NFC West representative has advanced in the playoffs in each of the last six seasons.
Not to mention, the Saints’ second-worst loss of the season was to the NFC West’s last-place Arizona, 30-20.
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.