ATLANTA — First place in the mediocre NFC South, the NFL's only division to lack a team with a winning record with the season in its 12th week, will be on the line when the New Orleans Saints visit the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Saints (5-5) can strengthen their hold on first place by beating the Falcons (4-6). Atlanta has a three-game losing streak, leaving third-year coach Arthur Smith surprised but grateful his team remains in contention for a playoff spot in the weak division.
Even with seven games remaining, Smith acknowledged this is a must-win week for the Falcons. It's also an important game for the coach, who posted 7-10 records in each of his first two seasons and is under pressure to produce a winner and return Atlanta to the playoffs for the first time since the 2017 season.
"We put ourselves in this pressure situation, and this is what it's about," Smith said. "I'm thankful to have this opportunity for this enormous game coming up against the Saints at home. We've got everything on the line and everything to play for."
First place provides no sense of comfort for Saints coach Dennis Allen, who went 7-10 in his debut 2022 season and has criticized his team's lack of consistency this year.
"We've been a little bit of a tale of two teams in that the first part of the season," Allen said, adding that the offense struggled the first five games while the defense played well.
"That's flipped a little bit over the last five weeks," Allen said. "... We need to get back to playing the type of defense that we played earlier in the season."
Each team is coming off an open date, time off that was important to quarterbacks Derek Carr in New Orleans and Desmond Ridder in Atlanta.
Carr had an opportunity to recover after being knocked out of a 27-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 12 with a concussion and a shoulder injury. Jameis Winston threw two touchdown passes and two late interceptions after taking over for Carr against the Vikings.
Carr was removed from the Saints' injury report on Thursday after participating in a full practice on Wednesday.
The Falcons also faced uncertainty at quarterback during their time off, but Smith said Monday that Ridder would be reinstated as the starter.
Veteran Taylor Heinicke started the last two games before leaving the Falcons' 25-23 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 12 with a hamstring injury, and he was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Logan Woodside is the other option as Ridder's backup.
Ridder is 4-4 as a starter this season — he went 2-2 while starting Atlanta's final four games of 2022 as a rookie — and has thrown six touchdown passes with six interceptions while struggling to avoid sacks and fumbles. He said success on first downs will be a key in his return as a starter.
"One thing for us obviously is just stay on track, be able to get out there and not get in second-and-longs, not get in third-and-longs," said Ridder, who is 5-1 as a starter in home games.
He is part of an offense stocked with promising young players at the skill positions, including rookie running back Bijan Robinson, who had a season-high 22 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown against Arizona.
Robinson has only three catches for 19 yards in his past four games after totaling 19 receptions in his first four games, but even so, his carries against the Cardinals showed Smith has increased confidence in the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder's durability.
"He's going to have a huge role in our game plan," Smith said, adding, "you expect more of a lull, maybe a rookie fatigue at some point. And I certainly have not seen that from him."
Although the Falcons and Saints are old and fierce rivals, there are plenty of ties between the franchises.
Allen, who was born in Atlanta, was on staff with the Falcons from 2002-05. Terry Fontenot, who has been Atlanta's general manager since 2021, had been with the Saints in scouting and executive roles for two decades before joining the Falcons.
The Falcons' defensive coordinator is former New Orleans co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. Atlanta added two notable former Saints, defensive tackle David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Ellis, in the offseason.
"How many more guys do they need, you know?" Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "Yeah, I mean, it feels personal. ... You know, they've got Saints lite over on the on the Atlanta side. So they know us even better now than they have previously."