By Paul Newberry
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 tonight’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.”