All eyes will be on the Georgia Dome on Monday night when the first place Atlanta Falcons host the New Orleans Saints in a key NFC contest in primetime (ESPN, 8:30 PM ET).
"It is going to be imperative for us to get that dome rocking as we get ready for the defending Super Bowl champions coming in here on Monday night," says Atlanta head coach MIKE SMITH. "I encourage everybody to come on down to the dome and get ready to roll."
Atlanta has won eight consecutive games and owns the best record in the conference at 12-2. The Falcons, who clinched a playoff berth last week with a win at Seattle, lead the Saints by two games and can clinch the NFC South division and secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory.
"It's very satisfying for the organization," says Smith about clinching a postseason spot. "We like the way our team has played throughout the season. We are focused on this game because it's the next game. We know where we're at. It's going to be a hard-fought football game. The Saints are playing as well as any team in the league right now. It's a big challenge. We know what's at stake."
The Saints have won six of their past seven games and can clinch a playoff berth with a victory (or a Tampa Bay loss or tie on Sunday). A win would also keep New Orleans in the hunt for its second consecutive division title.
"We're playing a good team that is playing very well right now," says Saints head coach SEAN PAYTON. "We have two division games left and the key for us is to get our 11th win. Right now that first opportunity comes versus Atlanta on Monday night. We're excited about it. We know it's a big challenge going there and facing the team we're playing.
"In our league, it's about getting yourself prepared mentally and physically ready to play your best game. When you play a team that has won 12 games, you know that you're going to have to be prepared."
The teams met in Week 3 and the Falcons left New Orleans with a 27-24 overtime victory. In that contest, Atlanta quarterback MATT RYAN threw two touchdown passes, running back MICHAEL TURNER rushed for 114 yards and MATT BRYANT kicked a 46-yard game-winning field goal with 1:55 remaining in overtime.
"The first game this year was close and could have gone either way," says NFL Network analyst STEVE MARIUCCI. "This one will be another shootout.
"The Saints have been hot and they've looked like the defending champions. The Falcons have been great at home. If there's an advantage, it's that confidence that Atlanta has playing at home in the dome. They believe they can get it done and will get it done."
Among the keys to the game will be the play of the quarterbacks.
In his career, Ryan is 19-1 (.950) at home as the starting quarterback, including 15 consecutive victories. He is tied with DANNY WHITE for the best winning percentage in a player's first 20 starts at home among quarterbacks who began their careers in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). With 32 career wins as a starter, Ryan can tie Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO (33) for the most victories by a quarterback in his first three seasons since at least the 1970 merger.
New Orleans' DREW BREES leads the NFC in attempts (571), completions (391), yards (4,122) and touchdowns (31). He has recorded at least 4,000 yards in each of his five years with the Saints and joined PEYTON MANNING as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with five consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. Since joining New Orleans in 2006, Brees has thrown for 22,420 yards and 153 touchdowns. He is the only quarterback in league annals to pass for at least 20,000 yards and 150 touchdowns in a player's first five seasons with a new team.