Let’s step beyond the obvious -- implications on the NFC South race, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and bragging rights -- and look at five more reasons the "Monday Night Football" game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons is huge.
1. Drew Brees’ legacy. He had a truly magical season in 2009 as he led the Saints to the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Although Brees and the Saints are having a nice 2010 season, the quarterback hasn’t been nearly as flawless as a season ago. He’s thrown a career-high 19 interceptions and, for much of the season, has looked just a little off on many of his throws. A loss to the Falcons and/or a quick exit from the playoffs could resume all the “curse’’ talk that started before the season when Brees showed up on the cover of the Madden video game. A win against the Falcons could put Brees back on the sort of magical roll that carried the Saints through last season’s playoffs.
2. Matt Ryan’s legacy. In his third NFL season, Ryan has continued to develop a knack for leading his team to comebacks. He also has had several of the sort of games that you need to be considered an elite quarterback. But there still is some debate about whether Ryan belongs in that category. Win this one and go 2-0 against Brees and the Saints in one season, and the argument pretty much ends.
3. Contenders or pretenders? Although they have the best record in the NFC (12-2), are 6-0 at home and have only lost three times in the Georgia Dome since the start of the 2008 season, the Falcons aren’t viewed as a dominant team in all corners of the earth. Some media members and fans are quick to point out flaws and, despite the record, say they’re beatable at home. That might be true, and the Saints have a chance to expose the Falcons. If they don’t, then maybe the Falcons really are invincible at home.
4. Best athlete on the field. People everywhere have all sorts of thoughts about New Orleans running back Reggie Bush. Some call him a bust and others give him a little more credit than that. This season, Bush really hasn’t been much of a factor. Blame a broken leg for most of that. But Bush is back healthy now and, although he hasn’t done much since his return, I’d still keep a close eye on him Monday night. I have this theory that when you throw a bunch of great athletes on a field in a very big game, the best athlete on the field is sometimes going to step up and make a great play or two. I shared that theory before the Saints played the Cardinals in a playoff game last season. Bush went out and had a 46-yard touchdown run and an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arizona. Say what you want about Bush, but he will be the best athlete (I’m only talking pure athletic ability here) in the Georgia Dome on Monday night, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him step up and make a huge play or two.
5. A defensive struggle? It’s hard to imagine this being a low-scoring game. But people like to say defense wins championships. Not sure if that’s always true, but I think this game presents an opportunity for two defenses that sometimes get criticized to play a statement game. Atlanta’s defense is better than it was a year ago. Although New Orleans’ defense hasn’t been as prolific in coming up with turnovers as it was last season, the overall defense has been better. Still, not a lot of people give either defense much credit for being very good. Each defense has a chance to change that perception Monday night.