Last week, I described how proud I am of the Atlanta Falcons for being able to win in more ways than one this season. From games when Matt Bryant is having a bad day, to games when the defense struggles, to games when Matt Ryan and the offense can't move the ball, and all without a consistent running game, the Falcons have squeaked their way to a 10-1 record on the season.
Now, it's time for a statement game from these Falcons.
And there's no better time than this Thursday night against the division rival New Orleans Saints.
The Saints, of course, were the team to hand the Falcons their lone defeat of the season in a 31-27 decision at the Superdome in Week 10. New Orleans was also the team that annihilated Atlanta 45-16 on Monday Night Football last December, and it has been the team that has had Mike Smith's number ever since he became Atlanta's head coach in 2008.
Playoff games aside, no matchups have been as hotly anticipated for the Falcons than their yearly contests with the Saints.
Yet in seven of the last eight matchups, the Falcons haven't been able to deliver, falling just short virtually every time.
To put it simply, it’s about time that they got over that hump.
The Falcons need this statement game. They need to blow their rivals out of the water. Not for the fans, not for the media nor for the rest of the league, but to prove to themselves that they can get past their frustrating struggles against those pesky Saints once and for all.
Not because of what the Saints' record is, but rather because of who they are: the Falcons' worst nightmare.
That has perhaps been true these last four years more than any other time, with the Saints handing the Falcons the loss that would eliminate them from the 2009 playoffs along with momentum-halting December losses in the 2008, 2010 and 2011 seasons—all of which resulted in early postseason exits.
New Orleans' recent domination of the Falcons is no doubt a thought in the back of every Falcons player's mind, and eliminating it is the next wall to break for this maturing team, which has already shown this season that it can still win when the pressure's on and everything goes wrong.
Those wins have been important, without question; after all, they've helped the Falcons reach the top of the NFC. Yet while all those wins may carry the same value on paper, none of them have meant as much to Atlanta as what this Thursday night's tilt will mean.
This matchup is more than just another game on the schedule for the Falcons—it carries with it a special importance, a certain urgency to win and a need to show themselves that they truly are no longer the same ol' Falcons.
Of course, even if they succeed, they would still need to prove that they can get over the playoff hump, and that won't come until later in the year.
Until then, however, no game is more important than Atlanta's upcoming battle with the Saints. With a division title potentially on the line, revenge to serve, playoff hopes to crush and all of America watching, the pressure will be on the Falcons once again on Thursday night.
It's time that they stopped succumbing to it and started owning it.