The Saints have a chance to start 2016 right playing against the Atlanta Falcons


Jonathan Vilma and Drew Brees look on during the coin toss of a Saints/Falcons game in 2009.

Saints-Falcons games are never meaningless. 

Both teams have been eliminated from playoff competition, but, really, Sunday's contest is a playoff game all its own: it's a chance for the Saints to sweep the Falcons for the 14th time since 1967, bringing the all-time series record to 49-45 in favor of Atlanta; it's also a chance for the Falcons to avoid a sweep and establish, under head coach Dan Quinn, that the Saints will not extend the dominance they enjoyed over former coach Mike Smith.

Anyway, you know all that. The real chance we have here is to start the 2016 football calendar year off about as well as you can start off a football calendar year: by beating Atlanta. 

On the way to a win over the Falcons, the Saints could do a bunch of other pretty cool things. Drew Brees, for example, has basically had one of those sports seasons that qualifies as "heroic" in sportswriting vernacular. With arguably the worst offensive supporting cast he's ever had, and with the defense of a 1-15 team weighing him down, he's nevertheless put together a passer rating of 100.7 — if that stands after Sunday, it'll be his fifth season with a passer rating of 100 or better.

To put that number in context, consider this: Brees' record as a starter, including 2004 with the San Diego Chargers, in seasons he's had a passer rating of 100 or better is 48-14. His worst such season record, before 2015, was 11-5. This year, the best Brees can manage as a starter is 7-8. 

So far, Brees also has his second-best mark for interceptions: He's thrown a pick on just 1.9 percent of his pass attempts, just behind his 2013 career best of 1.8 percent and ahead of his 2.1 percent rate in both 2009 and 2011. 

Brees has an outside chance at breaking the 5,000 yard mark yet again, this time after missing a game thanks to an injury to his throwing shoulder and while breaking in a new fleet of middling skill players. He needs 453 against Atlanta to get there. Probably won't happen — but still.

Speaking of those middling skill players, receiver Willie Snead has a pretty good opportunity to gain 1000 yards on Sunday. If he does so, he'll join Brandin Cooks, who has 1,116 to go along with his nine touchdowns and 79 receptions. Cooks has, really, emerged as something more than average in 2015, over the back half of the season especially beginning to live up to the expectations we've all had for him since his "frankling alarming"  performance during training camp as a rookie in 2014.

Tight end Ben Watson will probably finish with more than 70 receptions, making him the only Saints tight end other than Jimmy Graham to catch 70 passes in a season and proving that almost anyone other than Josh Hill can succeed as a tight end with Drew Brees throwing the football to him.

A few other things that can happen: Defensive lineman Cam Jordan, who has nine sacks, needs just one to hit double digits for the second time in his career; Delvin Breaux needs just one pass defensed to hit 20 for the season; and Brandon Browner can extend his NFL record for penalties in a season.

But more important than all that is the final result of the game, as always. All Saints fans should keep the all-time Saints/Falcons series record in mind. The Saints haven't led the series since they won the first game between the two teams. After that, the Falcons went on a long winning streak that the Saints were unable to close significantly until after the turn of the century. 

Today, they are almost as close to overtaking Atlanta as they've ever been. A win would make it possible for the Saints to catch the Falcons in 2017.

Even if you're as exhausted by the repetition of recent Saints football as I am, that's something to cheer for.

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