A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons were vying for the best record in the NFC while the New Orleans Saints were mired in one of the most frustrating seasons in team history.
With the roles reversed in 2013, the visiting Saints can sweep the season series by extending the Falcons' longest skid in six years to five games Thursday night.
The return of coach Sean Payton and addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has helped New Orleans (8-2) leave the dismal 7-9, bounty-scandal season of 2012 in the past and thrive once again. The Saints are 1 1/2 games behind Seattle for the best record in the NFC and looking for a third straight victory after rallying from a six-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat San Francisco 23-20 at home Sunday.
"These are the (games) that just sharpen you, build confidence moving forward," quarterback Drew Brees said.
Injuries, combined with a poor running game and struggling defense, has Atlanta (2-8) tied for the worst record in the conference after finishing an NFC-best 13-3 and coming within one win of the Super Bowl last season. The Falcons lost 41-28 to Tampa Bay on Sunday and have dropped four straight for the first time since a six-game slide in 2007 - the season before coach Mike Smith's arrival.
"Clearly, we're 10 games into this thing and certainly far, far away from where we want to be," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We've got six games to go. It's about going out there and taking pride in what you do."
After New Orleans rallied from a 10-0 hole to post a 23-17 season-opening victory over the Falcons, it appeared the teams would mix it up for the South Division title.
The Saints have done their part, starting 5-0 and riding an offense that ranks second in the NFL with 419.1 yards and 28.8 points per game. Brees is completing 68.2 percent of his passes and is second to Peyton Manning with 3,369 passing yards and 26 touchdowns.
He was 30 of 43 for 305 yards with a TD and an interception to help the Saints overcome two other turnovers by leading them to three fourth-quarter field goals last week.
"You're going to have games like this," he said. "This game means more the way that we won it."
After running for a season-high 242 yards in a 49-17 rout of Dallas on Nov. 10, New Orleans outrushed San Francisco 92-81 and held Frank Gore to 48 yards on 13 attempts.
The Saints allowed 440.1 yards and 28.4 points per contest in 2012, but rank fourth with 305.4 yards and fifth with 18.3 points this season. However, they expect to be without cornerback Jabari Greer after he suffered a knee injury against the 49ers.
New Orleans held the Falcons to 367 total yards and gave up seven points after the first quarter in September. Brees threw for 357 with two TDs and an interception, bouncing back from a no-TD, five-interception performance in a 23-13 loss Nov. 29 that snapped the Saints' three-game winning streak at Atlanta.
Since that defeat, Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 14 straight games, totaling 38 with 11 picks during the run.
His first TD of the season went to Marques Colston, who became New Orleans' all-time leader in receiving yards with 7,923 after recording 80 on five catches Sunday. Colston has three touchdowns in his last four games against Atlanta.
Though the Saints have won 12 of 15 over the Falcons, they understand the challenge that awaits on a short week against a desperate team.
"This is a test that we're going to have to try and overcome," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "Honestly, why not have it? It's a division opponent, it's our rival. It's going to talk a lot about the fortitude and what we have on this team."
Atlanta is allowing 29.2 points per game - 29th in the league - and yielded 108 in its past three, but owner Arthur Blank remains confident in Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
"I absolutely do. And, they've earned it over the past five years," Blank said. "It's a tough business. We've had a lot of injuries, and issues on top of the injuries. These guys are proven leaders and proven by success. ... They'll do the work that has to be done with my full support."
The Falcons might have bottomed out Sunday when they trailed 38-6 to a Tampa Bay team that earned its first win the week before.
Ryan threw an 80-yard pass to Harry Douglas to extend his streak of games with at least one touchdown to 16, but he was sacked three times and one of his two interceptions was returned for a score. Ryan has five TDs and nine INTs in the last four contests after throwing 13 with three picks in the first six.
The Falcons were averaging 64.3 rushing yards going into the Bucs game, but gained a season-high 152 with most coming in the fourth quarter. Little-used Antone Smith ran for 88 on two carries, including a 50-yard score.
Smith could see more time over Steven Jackson, who has gained 192 yards and not scored a rushing TD in six games this season. However, Jackson ran for a season-high 77 yards on 11 attempts against New Orleans in Week 1.
The Associated Press News Service
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