For weeks, the Saints have been doggedly on the Falcons' heels, daring the Dirty Birds to miss a step. To do so would be to force the two teams into a tie for the NFC South lead, with the Falcons only having the advantage of beating New Orleans once earlier this year. Those were tense times.
Happily, they're over. The Saints are now in a position of needing to win both of their remaining games just to catch the Falcons, and the Falcons would need to lose out. A loss to the Saints is a possibility, but for the Falcons to drop a home game to the Carolina Panthers, dark magic would be required. It's the safest lead Atlanta's had all season.
That's not to say it couldn't happen, but the Falcons can eliminate all doubt by kicking the Saints around on Monday night. While you're busy digesting that nutritious premise, join me after the jump for a quick look around the division.
New Orleans Saints, 10-4
It finally happened! The Saints, who had hung on through some very close games and a lengthy bout with injuries, came into Sunday's game against the Ravens healthier on offense than they'd been all year, and it wasn't enough. A tough game, to be sure, but one the Saints ultimately dropped.
The Falcons needed the help to reach the cusp of home field advantage throughout the playoffs, so I'm very thankful that Nawlins dropped this one. Unfortunately, being in the Georgia Dome is the only advantage they'll have against the Saints Monday night, because the Saints have gotten back Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush from injury.
Oh, one other advantage: Sean Payton has no findangin' clue how to use his running backs properly. The Saints are vulnerable to the run and struggle to mount an effective ground game that doesn't exclusively use Chris Ivory, so the Falcons should be able to take advantage of that. Should.
The Saints are definitely playoff bound, though, so this may not be the last time we see them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8-6
The Bucs are going to need a ton of help to make the playoffs in 2010, so the Falcons may just have seen the last of them. Their best shot is to beat out the Packers, which is possible but not probable with Aaron Rodgers coming back.
Despite their disappointing loss this last weekend, the Bucs have shown a resiliency I didn't expect from them. They could legitimately put up 10 wins this season and miss the playoffs, which is a damn shame with two potential 7-9 teams vying for a playoff spot (and a home game!) in the NFC West.
If they get a couple more pieces on the defensive line and bolster Josh Freeman's protection, the Bucs are going to be dangerous very, very soon. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Carolina Panthers, 2-12
Hey, the Panthers won a second game! I'd tell the Carolinas to get out the confetti, but I'm pretty sure it's soaked through with their tears.
At this point, the Panthers have two options in the upcoming draft. They can elect to go with Jimmy Clausen as their franchise quarterback and shore up the team around him, or they can sell out and go for Andrew Luck if he declares. The wisest option is probably the former, but I'm willing to bet the Panthers won't be able to resist Luck, and he almost certainly will be an upgrade on Clausen on his own merits. Decisions, decisions.
Either way, don't expect the Panthers to go on a late season run, or to sniff the playoffs in 2012. They'll be dangerous in the years beyond if they play their cards right.
New Orleans: 11-5
Tampa Bay: 9-7