TAMPA, Fla. -- Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, fresh off his most productive performance of the season, isn't holding a grudge against New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton heading into Sunday's matchup.
When the teams met 12 days ago in Week 14, cameras caught Payton making a choke sign in Freeman's direction near the sideline and mouthing "choke" in the process. It was assumed to be a reference to the Falcons blowing a 25-point lead in a Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, although Payton denied there was anything to it. Payton later texted Freeman to apologize, according to a source.
"I'll talk to him," Freeman told ESPN, meaning he'll be cordial with Payton, if the opportunity presents itself. "It ain't no grudge. I don't take it personal at all. He's a competitor. He's just a top competitor. He loves his job. He's real passionate about it."
Freeman said after the first game that Payton "don't know nothing about choking" in reference to Freeman growing up in the rugged Miami projects. He understands the storyline will resurface this week leading into the rematch.
"Definitely, definitely, but I don't get caught up in it," Freeman said. "I don't care. I try not to pay attention to it, you feel me?"
When asked if a coach shouldn't make such a gesture toward a player, Freeman said, "I mean, I don't really get into it. He's passionate, like I said. He just loves what he do."
Freeman is quite passionate himself, and the two-time Pro Bowler continues to show it with his play. In Monday night's win over Tampa Bay, he rushed for a season-high 126 yards on 22 carries, including a 32-yard touchdown run. He also got involved in the passing game with a season-high five catches for 68 yards. Freeman was the team's leading receiver, with two more catches than Julio Jones (three catches, 54 yards).
Freeman figured to carry a heavy workload with backup Tevin Coleman sidelined by a concussion, and his 194 total yards against the Buccaneers marked his third-most yards from scrimmage in a game during his career. His best was 207 in Week 3 of last year against the Saints. He had 197 against the Washington Redskins in Week 5 of 2015.
Although Freeman missed two games last month with his third career concussion, he hasn't changed his rugged running style. He barreled over defenders Monday night and has been doing the same ever since returning to the lineup.
"I ain't going to slow down, no matter what," Freeman said. "The only way I know how to play is physical. When that being said, I just have to do a better job at taking care of my body, because it's a physical sport.
"That's like telling Steph Curry, 'Take less 3s; takes less jump shots.' It's impossible because that's what he do. That's why he's Steph Curry. Same thing with LeBron when he's going to slam on somebody. And I just use them because they're great competitors. If they get injured or something, no matter what happens to them, it's not like they're going to change their game. ... Same with me."
Along with the physicality, Freeman has the vision and wiggle to put defenders on the ground. He did such to a couple of Buccaneers, including safety Keith Tandy on his touchdown run. But Freeman did have two fumbles, both recovered by teammates. Tight end Levine Toilolo recovered one for a touchdown. Freeman vowed to clean up those errors.
"Man, I'm just trying to do what I do," Freeman said. "Obviously, I've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of work to do. I still feel like we haven't played our best ball. But there's a lot of football out there for us. Hopefully, we're trying to be here for February."
With a win over Payton and the Saints on Sunday, Freeman and the Falcons would guarantee themselves a playoff spot. Finishing the regular season with win at New Orleans and in the home finale against Carolina would give the Falcons the NFC South title.
Having Freeman in a rhythm running the ball could be key to closing out the season strong. His performance against the Bucs, along with the physical play of the offensive line, led to a season-high 201 rushing yards for the Falcons. They are 7-1 this season when they rush for 132 yards or more.