NEW ORLEANS -- The Falcons know the score here.
Yes, they can accomplish a couple of their internal goals on Monday night. By knocking off the Saints at the Superdome, Atlanta will have beaten an archrival, kept alive its chances at the NFC South title, and guaranteed itself a âwinâ of the fourth quarter of the season.
But yes, these Falcons are also aware of the obvious. The current regime â- having done a remarkable job of rebuilding and posting four straight winning seasons for a franchise that had never before had two in a row â- still lacks a playoff win. That canât be rectified in New Orleans, and wonât change until after New Yearâs Day.
Itâs there, though, and these guys are human. So itâs in the back of their minds, with the biggest game of the regular season coming up.
âI know this -â everyoneâs aware of what the record is,â coach Mike Smith said over the phone from his office on Friday afternoon. âI donât believe itâs something that we have at the front of our minds. Thereâs a process you have to go through in a season, and weâve got to go through that process. I think itâll be a bigger point of focus as we get into the season. ... For now, weâre fighting our tails off to get in.â
Smith and his troops, though, have a pretty good example to draw from their recent past on just how important it is to carry momentum into January. And the New Orleans game gives the Falcons a chance to build some of that.
Itâs not necessarily that the Falcons werenât playing well going into last January. They were 13-3.
Itâs that the Packers came in with knives sharpened before carving up Atlanta 48-21 at the Georgia Dome.
Green Bay had stumbled through parts of the regular season but kept improving late, amid a rash of serious injuries, and was primed for that showdown. Similarly, the Falcons started this year 2-3 and have since righted the ship with seven wins in nine games.
âWeâve been more consistent in all three phases,â Smith says. âThere was a stretch in that 7-2 run when we started to play really good special teams, and our young punter started punting better and creating field position. Matt (Ryan) has really come on with the offense -- heâs been more efficient and gotten into a rhythm with regards to where the ballâs going. And defensively, weâve been solid. We havenât give up the explosive plays we had been.â
So now, the measuring stick.
And the emotion in that one was just like the rest of the Falcons-Saints games since Smith (heâs 2-5 vs. New Orleans) arrived in 2008. While heâs steady, the coach readily concedes thereâd been a âdifferent energyâ and âheightened awarenessâ during the week with this particular rivalry on tap. At best, the Falcons gather a head of steam and stay alive in the division race. At worst, they figure out where theyâre at.
Remember, the front end of this yearâs home-and-home featured Sean Payton returning to the sideline earlier than expected, even while being relegated to crutches. So itâs not hard to see how everyone is busting tail to prove his worth.
âYou want to do your job as well or better than the guy on the other team does his,â Smith said. âFor Matt, right now, Drew (Brees) is playing as well as anyone has ever played the quarterback position, in my mind. Heâs 72 percent for the season, and itâs not just dink-and-dunk -â heâs gonna break (Dan) Marinoâs record â- itâs mind-boggling. So I think all our guys know theyâll have to have their best game.â
If it works out for Atlanta tonight?
Thatâs great, of course, for the club. The Falcons would be 10-5, and keep faint hope of a repeat South title alive -â with New Orleans facing a tricky one against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 17.
But regardless of what happens, the important thing is this group will be judged on what happens in January. Even with focus on New Orleans and finishing the regular season, Smith can concede that.
âI believe everything we have done, up until this point (through four years) has been to improve the team and the roster,â Smith said. âAnd yes, I do feel weâre better equipped now (to win in the playoffs). Weâre in the fourth year of this process. Each and every year, weâve improved our team.â
And as the teamâs gotten better, more has been demanded.
Only time will tell on whether that next hurdle is cleared. On Monday night, though, we all might get a few hints on just how far this group of Falcons has come.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.