Throw out the records. Forget the first 16 weeks of the NFL season. None of it will matter when the Atlanta Falcons (6-9) and Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) square off next Sunday for the right to represent the NFC South in the postseason.
The Falcons eliminated the New Orleans Saints (6-9) from playoff contention Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, winning 30-14 and sweeping the season series between the southern rivals for the first time during the Sean Payton era.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Panthers moved atop the division by a half-game with a 17-13 victory against the Cleveland Browns, setting up the winner-take-all game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Afterward, Falcons owner Arthur Blank sat among reporters and listened intently to a postgame news conference conducted by coach Mike Smith, who made no excuses nor offered any apologies for his team’s sub-.500 record.
“It says we’ve got to have one more win than the rest of the guys in the division,’’ Smith said when asked to put Sunday’s win against New Orleans in perspective. “That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what Carolina will be attempting to do as well.
“It ought to be a hell of a football game in the Georgia Dome next week. The quickest way to get into the playoffs in the NFL is to win your division. They don’t put a bar that says how many wins that you have to have.”
Truth be told, Smith’s future in Atlanta may depend on the divisional showdown against the Panthers, who lost the first meeting between the teams 19-17 in Charlotte in Week 11. Blank reportedly is considering a coaching change at season’s end unless the Falcons make some noise in the postseason.
And they aren’t assured of playing football in January just yet.
They stayed alive for the fourth seed in the NFC and accompanying home game against the fifth seed with a convincing win against the Saints, thanks largely to a defense that didn’t play like the 32nd-ranked unit in the NFL.
The Falcons sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times, forced four turnovers and ended the game on an 86-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive end Osi Umenyiora. Defensive end Kroy Biermann jarred the ball loose from Brees at the Atlanta 14, and Umenyiora ran untouched into the end zone as time expired.
Three of the Saints four turnovers came in their last four possessions, including a lost fumble by tight end Jimmy Graham at the goal line on the first play of the fourth quarter with Atlanta clinging to a 20-7 lead. Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael stripped the ball from Graham as he was fighting to reach the end zone and returned the fumble 18 yards to the Atlanta 20
“I can speak for the defense: We had a certain amount of nastiness,’’ said Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow, who had a game-high nine tackles. “That’s the kind of effort we’re going to need next week.’’
The Falcons may enter the game shorthanded in the secondary because of injuries to safeties William Moore and Dwight Lowery and cornerback Josh Wilson.
“We can’t ask for anything better than this,’’ Falcons’ rookie safety Dezmen Southward said. “We’re playing one game for a chance to get in the dance. You have to be happy about that regardless what your record is. You have to go in and prepare like it’s the end of the world, and that’s what we’re going to do.
“Just like we did for this game. If we lost today, we were out. The playoffs already started for us, just as it has for a few other teams. Basically, we’re out there playing like it’s win or go home.’’