Despite hurdles, Saints face Falcons with playoffs in sight
The New Orleans Saints have dealt with a lot of complications this season.
They were displaced to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a month at the start of the season and had to move their opener from the Caesars Superdome to Jacksonville because of damage Hurricane Ida did to New Orleans.
Star wide receiver Michael Thomas has missed the entire season because of foot surgery, starting quarterback Jameis Winston was lost for the season in October because of a knee injury and more than a half dozen other key players have missed significant time due to injury.
Head coach Sean Payton, several assistants and about two dozen players have missed games because of multiple COVID-19 surges.
Yet despite all that, the Saints (8-8) head into the regular-season finale at Atlanta (7-9) on Sunday with an opportunity to earn a wild-card playoff berth. If they beat the Falcons and the Rams beat the 49ers on Sunday, the Saints are in.
“We have managed to keep our head above water, keep grinding, and keep fighting,” said Payton, whose team has won three of its last four after a five-game losing streak. “The number one goal, outside of winning the division, is making it to the postseason.
“We have the opportunity to do that this weekend, and you just want to find a way to get into the tournament.”
The Saints stayed alive in the playoff race with an 18-10 home victory against Carolina last Sunday.
Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who has missed the last seven games because of a knee injury, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday after being removed from the reserve/COVID list. Right tackle Terron Armstead (knee) and defensive end Marcus Davenport (ankle) missed practice.
“When you go all the way back to the start of the season,” Payton said, “it feels like two and a half years ago we were evacuating to Dallas during the hurricane. It doesn’t feel like that’s part of this season.”
The five-game losing streak began with a 27-25 loss to the Falcons on Nov. 7 in the Superdome.
Atlanta stayed alive in the playoff race until a 29-15 loss at Buffalo last Sunday.
“Obviously we wanted to get into these playoffs,” Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith said. “We didn’t. So we’ve got to deal with reality and we’ve got to finish this season strong.”
The Saints and the Falcons are each other’s most frequent opponents, having met 104 times.
“You need division rivalries,” Smith said. “You want people to be excited about a game.”
Matt Ryan passed for a season-high 343 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting. He also ran for a touchdown and the Falcons prevailed on Younghoe Koo’s 29-yard field goal as time expired.
“It’s always disappointing when you don’t have the opportunity to get into the playoffs and keep going,” Ryan said. “But we still have one more opportunity to go out there and try and play as well as we can against a division opponent, a good rival who’s playing for a lot.”
The Falcons have dealt with COVID issues of late as well. At one point they had 13 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but they’re down to three after activating six this week.
Kyle Pitts is the second rookie tight end in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards. He needs 59 more against the Saints to break Mike Ditka’s NFL record of 1,076, but he missed practice Wednesday because of a hamstring injury that sidelined him during the game in Buffalo.
–Field Level Media