By Jason Keidel

Some some saw the Carolina Panthers contending, and defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons (9-5) fighting for a playoff spot. But few saw this iteration of the NFC South, which is the most ornery in the NFL. Particularly when you include the surprising New Orleans Saints (10-4) — Atlanta’s opponent on Sunday — who are winning at rising rates, and doing it with a style that belies their recent history. For years, the Saints relied almost exclusively on their pyrotechnic passing game, riding the divine right arm of Drew Brees.

Only three NFL clubs have scored at least 400 points this year: the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams, who both have scored 438, and the Saints, with 401. Yet the Saints have done it the in ways that belie their pass-happy history. When they signed free agent (but aging) stalwart Adrian Peterson, the Saints sent a message that they planned to dust off their running game. But Peterson was a malcontent the moment he didn’t get his 25 touches per game. So the Saints sent him packing to Arizona, where he got more playing time. And, accidentally, the Saints found they had a younger — and perhaps better — version of Peterson.

Indeed, Alvin Kamara has been a revelation. Not only is the third-round draft pick out of Tennessee a rushing artiste, but he’s also an expert receiver. A perfect emblem of balance, Kamara once had 546 yards rushing and 546 yards receiving. He stuffs the stat sheet and has made more than a few fantasy owners very cheerful.

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Not to be forgotten, Kamara is flanked by fellow rushing beast Mark Ingram. Ingram averages 5.1 yards per rush; Kamara dashes for an average of 6.6 yards per run. They’ve also combined for 1,700 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. And if you include Kamara’s receiving prowess, the duo has scored 23 TDs in just 14 games. Between the two halfbacks, the Saints are impossible to defend as long as the geriatric Brees can still sling the ball like a 25-year-old, and as long as offensive guru Sean Payton works his wizardry from the sideline.

And for the first time in a long time, the Saints defense is not lost in the shadow of their offense. Only two NFC clubs — the Vikings and Rams — have surrendered fewer points than the Saints, who are led by perhaps the steal of the draft outside of Kamara, former Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore.

While the Saints are surprising, the Falcons are supposed to be here, particularly considering they were supposed to be defending Super Bowl champions. No need to parse the particulars of that 28-3 lead they gagged up to the New England Patriots. What concerned many Falcons fans was the specter of a Super Bowl hangover. And for a while if felt like the Falcons were indeed gulping the gridiron Alka-Seltzer, with an erratic offense that should score way more often and has too often excluded their best player, Julio Jones. Considering Atlanta’s conga line of all-world talent — from Jones to Devonta Freeman to Muhammad Sanu to Tevin Coleman — there’s no way 14 NFL teams should score more points than the Falcons.

Atlanta has been moody all year, winning their first three games, then losing their next three, alternating wins and losses, before finally playing like defending conference champs. The Falcons enter the Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday having won five of their last six, their only loss coming to perhaps the best club in the conference (Vikings).

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But the Falcons not only are playing a team with a better record, they’re playing a team trying to win the NFC South. And the Saints will be frothing with a sense of payback, having lost their last game to the Falcons, 20-17, in Atlanta, two weeks ago. Obviously, this game is stuffed with playoff permutations, to go with the regular rancor that comes between divisional foes.

Drew Brees is playing like Drew Brees. Ryan is finally playing like the 2016 NFL MVP. And the Falcons finally remembered that they had a RB horse in Freeman, who sliced-up the Buccaneers defense for nearly 200 total yards.

Ryan isn’t duplicating his otherworldly stats from 2016, but he’s been more than serviceable, with nearly 3,500 yards. But his 18 touchdowns are a major drop, and his 11 interceptions make for a disconcerting TD- INT ratio. And while you might be slightly assuaged by Julio Jones’s 1,215 receiving yards, he has scored an alarming 3 — yes, three! — touchdowns. That’s hardly commensurate with his all-world talent.

But little of it matters if the Falcons somehow sneak out of the Superdome with a win. That would render both clubs 10-5 with one game to go, and Atlanta holding the vital tiebreaker, and an outside shot to win the NFC South. Should the Falcons lose this game, they will fall to 9-6 with no shot at the division crown, and a real chance to plunge through the playoff trap door.

An Atlanta-New Orleans game always has something riding on it — from provincial pride to playoff chances. This Sunday, it has both, and more. It’s clearly the NFL game of the week, and for these two NFL clubs, the game of the year.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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