Mickles: Saints’ key stretch rolls on with trip to Seattle

ATLANTA — Speaking on a conference call Tuesday, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith downplayed talk that his team and the New Orleans Saints were in the midst of a shocking role reversal.

A year ago, the Falcons were well on their way to winning a division title and earning the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. On the other hand, the Saints were reeling from back-to-back setbacks in a five-day span that would soon become a three-game losing streak.

Of course, the Falcons eventually came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, while the Saints, minus suspended coach Sean Payton, limped to a 7-9 finish.

But on Thursday night when he walked into the Georgia Dome, Smith’s team was 2-8 going into the second of two annual grudge matches with the 8-2 Saints.

When they emerged three hours later, the role reversal was complete.

With a hard-fought 17-13 victory, the Saints officially extinguished any hope the Falcons had of mounting a comeback and somehow finding a way to win a second straight NFC South title.

Not that they had much hope going into the game against the team, the Saints, that had unwittingly started their season of discontent with a surprising 23-17 win in New Orleans on Sept. 8.

Now 9-2, the Saints hold an insurmountable seven-game lead on the Falcons with five games remaining — much like the Falcons did last season when they ran away with the division title.

Normally, a season sweep of the archrival Dirty Birds would be cause for celebration for the Saints.

But thanks to Payton, and another old nemesis, the Saints don’t have time to bask in the glory of what is becoming a fun season after the doom and gloom last year when Payton was away.

When they awoke Friday morning, the Saints were sandwiched by two teams that will have a lot to say about how the season goes.

In front of them is the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks, whom they meet in a crucial game Dec. 2 in Seattle.

Behind the Saints: the Carolina Panthers, who are making a lot of noise with six consecutive victories that have been fueled by solid play on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

After the meeting with the Seahawks, which could determine who earns the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs, the Saints get the Panthers twice in three weeks.

So the Saints know they have everything in front of them with a matchup against the Seahawks that could help them claim the No. 1 seed and two games in 15 days against the Panthers that likely will decide if they succeed the Falcons as division champs.

With only five games to play, it’s up to them now.