New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons: Birds Have Chance To Lock Up No. 1 Seed

Ryan ComstockCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2010

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 19:  Running back Michael Turner #33 of the Atlanta Falcons rushes against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on December 19, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Winners of eight straight games, the Atlanta Falcons have an opportunity to not only clinch the NFC South when they face the New Orleans Saints Monday night, but also to secure the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It will be the final Monday Night game of the season, and if the past few years are any indication, we are in for a fantastic finale.

Since Mike Smith and Matt Ryan came on board in 2008, the Saints and Falcons have met five times.

Only once, a 2008 Week 10 Falcons win (34-20), has a game been decided by more than eight points. The average margin of victory in these contests has been six points, and the last two games were won by three points.

The Saints hold a 3-2 edge in head-to-head match-ups in that time span.

Atlanta won in the Superdome in Week 3 this season, a thrilling 27-24 overtime win. It was possibly the best game of the season in the entire NFL, and really one of the greatest in recent memory.

The Falcons ran the ball 50 times for 202 yards in that game, and will likely look to pound it out again against the NFL's 20th ranked rush defense.

New Orleans will try to stuff Atlanta's rushing game and force the Falcons to take to the air against what is statistically the fourth-best pass defense in the league.

On offense, the Saints appear to have a distinct advantage with their passing attack. New Orleans throws for 281.9 yards per game and Atlanta is the 20th ranked pass defense, giving up 266.8 passing yards a game.

It is of note, however, that the Falcons have given up an average of 131 passing yards in their last three games. Their rush defense fell out of the top 10 after giving up major yardage on the ground to Carolina and Tampa Bay, but rebounded last week against Seattle and held the Seahawks to 91 rushing yards.

During Atlanta's eight-game winning streak, Ryan has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,906 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 94.4 over that stretch.

At home this year, Ryan has been even better. He has a quarterback rating of 100.1 in the Georgia Dome, where he has a 68 percent completion percentage, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

How well Ryan (19-1 in Atlanta) and the rest of the team plays at home continues to amaze. They have not lost there with him as their starting quarterback since Week 11 of 2008.

In many ways, everything the Falcons have been working for in the past three seasons comes down to this game.

When Smith first came to the Falcons, he gave his players a goal: Win one game. If they could do that, he told them to go out and win another.

Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff often talk about "the process." In his post-game talks with his team, Smith speaks of taking steps. Winning one game is one step, and the next step begins in practice the following week.

Atlanta has a chance to take a giant step, and tremendous progress in their process, if they can beat New Orleans and clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

After the disastrous 2007 season, who would have thought we would be here this quickly?

If they can't do it Monday night, they'll still have a chance to wrap it up in Week 17 against Carolina, but it would be so much sweeter to get it done against the Saints.

Ryan also has a chance to make some history in these final two weeks.

Since the AFL-NFL merger, only one quarterback, Dan Marino, has more wins in his first three seasons than Atlanta's quarterback.

Ryan can tie his mark Monday against the Saints and surpass it in the last week of the season.

Again, what better foe to tie that historic mark against could there be than New Orleans?

We could have a classic on our hands here. Be sure to check back during the game as I will be providing live updates.