Saints need win over Falcons to keep playoffs hopes alive

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Saints’ playoff hopes are alive.

The Falcons (7-9) will host the Saints (8-8) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“This weekend is a must-win game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday, while talking to the New Orleans media.

The Saints need to beat the Falcons and have the Los Angeles Rams prevail over the San Francisco 49ers to claim the seventh, and final, playoff berth in the NFC. It would mark the fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs for the Saints and the ninth since Sean Payton became the coach in 2006.

The Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.

The Saints have dealt with the injuries, including losing starting quarterback Jameis Winston for most of the season, not having wide receiver Michael Thomas, COVID-19 outbreaks and being displaced during Hurricane Ida.

The Saints have rebounded from a five-game losing streak that started with the Falcons beating them 27-25 on a field goal at the buzzer Nov. 7.

They’ve won three of their past four games, including a 9-0 win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 19.

That Tampa Bay win was big in so many ways,” Payton said. “You’re just looking at the No. 1 goal, outside of winning the division, is making it to the postseason. We have the opportunity to do that this weekend, and you know, you just want to find a way to get into the tournament. We know it has to start with us finding a way to win this game (at the Falcons).”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith wants no part of playing the spoiler role.

“Yeah, it’s about us,” Smith said. “You know, we need to go out and win this game, division game. We got to.”

The Falcons, who are set to draft in the 10th spot entering the final weekend, were eliminated from the playoffs after losing 29-15 to Buffalo on Sunday. The Falcons could go as high as seventh in the draft with a loss and fall back as far as 16th with a victory, with each draft position to be determined by several games.

“I’ve got a ton of respect for the Saints and what they’ve done in their program for a long time, and Sean Payton,” Smith said. “We understand any division game is huge. Certainly, this one being here in Atlanta in another home game against a really quality opponent. We need to go win this game.”

After Winston went down with a season-ending knee injury, Trevor Siemian took over at quarterback for the Saints. He was benched in favor of Taysom Hill after going 0-4.

The Falcons were defeated twice by the Saints with Hill at the controls last season.

In the 18-10 win over the Panthers last week, Hill completed 17 of 22 passes for 222 yards, and he rushed for another 45 yards. Hill has completed only 56.8% of his passes after battling through a finger injury.

“He had two throws (against the Panthers) that he just missed,” Payton said. “I don’t know if it was grip-related, but he also made some really good throws. I imagine that he’s feeling more comfortable and getting healthier. ... I think (his finger) is feeling better.”

Unlike most of Payton’s teams during the Drew Brees era, the Saints prefer to run the ball, and that’s been a struggle lately. The Saints average 112.3 yards per game, which ranks 17th in the NFL.

The Saints scored a touchdown last week against the Panthers to break a streak of 11 quarters without a touchdown.

“How do we utilize Taysom Hill’s skill set, and honestly, early in that game, for the better part of the first half, we had trouble making it back to the line of scrimmage rushing the football,” Payton said. “We had trouble in the passing game, and we made enough plays in the second half to orchestrate that touchdown drive (to seal the game).”

Defensive end Cam Jordan is coming on down the stretch for the Saints defense. He had 3.5 sacks against the Panthers and 7.5 over the past three games. He leads the Saints with 11.5 sacks.

Linebacker Demario Davis leads the Saints with 100 tackles. The defense gives up 322.1 yards per game, which ranks eighth in the league.

Brett Maher has stabilized the Saints’ place kicker position. Wil Lutz, a former Georgia State standout, has not played this season after suffering complications from core surgery. Maher made four field goals against he Panthers and has made 12 consecutive.

The Saints tried Aldrick Rosas, Brian Johnson and Cody Parkey before returning to Maher.

Payton is proud of how his team has handled adversity this season.

“It starts with the ingredients,” Payton said. “That starts with the players we bring into the building. When you bring in (players with a good) makeup, we really make a point in doing that through the draft and in free agency. You bring in toughness, character.

“It is not always foolproof when you’re winning two, three, four games in a row, but just as importantly, it allows you to handle adversity during a stretch where you are not playing well or with some of the things that showed up this year.”

Things have not always gone well.

“Overall, philosophically, I think the players and staff here handled a lot of challenging things not always perfectly, but we have managed to keep our head above water, keep grinding, and keep fighting,” Payton said.

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