The Atlanta Falcons host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, a Week 12 matchup that brings the most heated rivalry in the NFL back for the 2023 season. In addition to being important in a vacuum—our guys beating the Saints gives me life—it is not really an exaggeration to say that this matchup will determine whether Atlanta’s success is all but over or very much alive.
The why is easy to understand. The Falcons are currently 4-6 and second in the NFC South, with a divisional record and head-to-head tiebreaker over the also 4-6 Buccaneers. A win puts them with an identical 5-6 record with the currently division-leading Saints, but with both the divisional record (they’ll be a sterling 3-0) and head-to-head tiebreakers. That puts them in an excellent position in the NFC South with three divisional games yet to go and their only other matchups coming against the hapless Jets and capable-of-good-things-on-a-good-day Colts and Bears. As impossible as it seems from where we’re sitting right now, Atlanta could win the division if they can kick off, say, a 5-2 or even 4-3 run with a great divisional record, all starting with this Saints game.
A loss might as well torpedo the season, however. Atlanta will be 4-7, meaning they’d have to go 5-1 over their final six games to manage a winning record and 4-2 to squeak in if the Saints also collapse, and would be 2.5 games behind 6-5 New Orleans owing to the head-to-head tiebreaker. You could still pull something together following that—the kind of run required is more or less the same—but the degree of difficulty goes up without that New Orleans tiebreaker and perfect NFC South record. If the Falcons look lousy Sunday against their biggest rival, it’s going to feel like the right time to pack it in, regardless.
That makes this the most important week of the season. Atlanta said Arizona was their Super Bowl and lost, talked about Minnesota being must-win and blew it, and are on the cusp of letting a promising season go completely to hell. This is a big, big week for Desmond Ridder, who is starting again at quarterback; for Kaden Elliss and Drew Onyemata, who should be eager to stick it to their old team; and for Arthur Smith, who may not be in danger of being fired at the end of the season but is in danger of being forced to shake up his staff and endure more blistering criticism heading into 2024. For Falcons fans sick of not being able to talk trash from the high ground, this matchup matters.
Let’s hope the Falcons win it, because no Sunday with a loss to the Saints is a good Sunday, and because the season is all but over if they do drop to 4-7.