It usually doesn’t take a lot of motivation to get the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, arch-rivals from the day the Saints entered the NFL in 1967, ready for their twice-yearly meetings as NFC South foes.
There’s even more motivation this year for both teams, who will meet twice in the next 19 days with the rematch on Nov. 29 in the Georgia Dome.
But, first things first.
With their own playoff hopes hanging by a thread with half a season to go, the Saints (3-5) would like nothing more than to hand the Falcons (8-0) their first loss when they meet again at noon Sunday in a jam-packed and noisy Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
For the Falcons, the motivation is to keep their streak going as the only unbeaten team in the NFL and continue on a path they hopes brings them back to the Superdome for Super Bowl XLVII in early February.
The story lines are nothing new for the Saints and Falcons, especially since both teams became regular contenders for division titles and playoff berths.
“We play twice a year, so it always seems to have a little extra juice to it,” Saints strong safety Roman Harper said.
At the same time, both teams spent part of the week trying to downplay the situation.
Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who left the Falcons this spring to sign a five-year contract that averages $5.5 million per season, was one of the players who emphasized that it’s one game in a 16-game season.
“You know, we don’t want to put too much on it,” he said. “It’s a divisional game versus an undefeated opponent. Some people say they’re the best team in the NFL right now, so it’s good to see where we’re at.
“We just want to go out and play against the best and let the cards fall where they fall on Sunday.”
On the other hand, the Falcons know they can’t afford to overlook a Saints team that has won three of its past four games after an 0-4 start.
Getting back for the Super Bowl has to be the last thing on their minds Sunday, quarterback Matt Ryan said.
“I think everybody has that in mind when you train and you prepare in the offseason,” Ryan said when asked if the Falcons have talked about finishing their season in New Orleans. “But at this time of the year, no.”
Ryan, who’s having an MVP-type season with 2,360 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions, said that’s one of the strengths of a locker room that is loaded with veteran leaders — much like the Saints had in 2009 when they started 13-0 and went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.
Much of their success this season has come from Ryan and an offense that ranks eighth in both total yards (376.6) and passing yards (278.1). The Falcons also rank seventh in scoring at 27.5 points a game.
Lofton, a second-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2008, said he knows why they’re where they are after playing with them for four years.
“Weapons,” he quickly said. “They have a ton of guys and you start with Matt Ryan. He’s probably playing the best of any quarterback in the league right now and then you look at the weapons.
“You’ve got Tony Gonzalez, a (future) Hall of Famer, and Roddy White and Julio Jones and Michael Turner and all of those guys. So, offensively, they function really well.”
That could pose a big problem for Lofton and the Saints defense, which has given up yardage at a record-setting pace.
They rank dead last in total yards allowed (471.3) and rushing yards (176.5) and are 29th against the pass (294.8). They also give up 28.6 points per game, which has them tied for 28th in the league.
The Saints, however, have had stretches of solid play in their past four games — shutting out the San Diego Chargers for the final 27 minutes and blanking the Tampa Bay Bucs for more than 38 minutes before turning in their best performance of the season Monday night in a 28-13 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
They sacked Michael Vick seven times, came up with two takeaways and held the Eagles to two field goals after they had a first-and-goal situation five times in the game.
That kind of defensive effort will be needed because the games between the Saints, who have won 10 of the past 12 meetings, and Falcons often are close, with four straight games being decided by a field goal before the Saints’ 45-16 rout on Dec. 26.
“The one thing we don’t do is we don’t go back and look at past records,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “Every week in the NFL takes on a life of its own. Because we’ve beaten this team in the past at some point in time is going to have no bearing on this game.
“This is an 8-0 football team coming here to play a 3-5 football team. I think they’re the best team in football. We’re going to have to play our best game of the year to be able to compete with these people.”