Hey, remember when the New Orleans Saints clinched the NFC South outright with an overtime victory against the Falcons in Atlanta? Yeah, it was the second week of November, and the win gave New Orleans exactly a one game lead, good enough for every national football pundit to hand the rest of the regular season to a team that got blown out by the Rams.
But oh, pesky reality: The Falcons kept pace with the Saints on Sunday by defeating Tennessee 23-17, and maintaining a one game distance in the division. As the NFC Wild Card picture become cloudy and crowded, no one seems to be giving Atlanta a shot at catching New Orleans down the stretch. No one, that is, but math and facts:
With six games remaining, Atlanta has two layups - hosting 2-8 Minnesota and 3-7 Jacksonville, a trip to "exciting" but "still bad" 2-8 Carolina, and outside of their December 26 rematch against the Saints, only two games against legitimate playoff contenders (at potentially Matt Schaub-less 7-3 Houston and 4-6 Tampa Bay).
New Orleans will play the Panthers and Vikings as well, but begin a three game stretch starting a week from tonight against the 6-4 Giants (home), 7-3 Lions (home) and 5-5 Titans (away), all three fighting for their postseason lives, all three desperate for a wildcard.
If the Falcons sweep their inferior opponents and split between the Texans and Bucs, they'll finish 4-1. If the Saints take two out of three against their quality opponents and handle the cupcakes, they'll finish... 4-1, setting up the rematch on December 26 as the deciding game for the division crown.
Most pundits are quick to give New Orleans the advantage because of home field, both against the Falcons and down the stretch. Certainly there's an advantage in playing two of those three quality games, as well as the rematch with the Falcons, in the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Don Draper voice), but they're far from unbeatable in a divisional rivalry against a fellow Dome team who, say, beat them there last season. But that can't happen again, because New Orleans has already won the division. Haven't they?