December to be crucial for Saints

The New Orleans Saints are quite proud, as well they should, of buzzing through their November schedule undefeated for a third straight season with 11 consecutive wins to show for it.

Playing well in that month, of course, bodes well for teams that are preparing to make a final push to the NFL playoffs in December.

That’s the next goal for the 8-3 Saints, who soar into the final month of the season with a narrow one-game edge over the Atlanta Falcons in the race for the NFC South title - which would be a third for Sean Payton in six seasons with the team.

Starting with Sunday night’s matchup with the Detroit Lions in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints will play four vitally important games in December before their regular-season finale on New Years’ Day.

As good as they have been in November though, the Saints have been only so-so under Payton in December. They are 13-10 in that month with last season’s 3-1 mark being the best of his first five seasons.

The Falcons, on the other hand, are 8-4 in December under coach Mike Smith.

How each team plays over the next three weeks could determine if a Dec. 26 showdown in the Superdome goes down and how it affects the division as well as the wild-card race.

So here’s a look at what the Saints, Falcons and other NFC wild-card contenders face in the stretch run-assuming the Green Bay Packers (11-0) and San Francisco 49ers (9-2) keep rolling and wrap up their respective divisions in the next couple of weeks:

NEW ORLEANS (8-3) - Games remaining: Detroit (7-4), at Tennessee (6-5), at Minnesota (2-9), Atlanta (7-4), Carolina (3-8).

Outlook: The Lions are sliding, so Tennessee on the road and a mad Atlanta team can’t be considered pushovers.

ATLANTA (7-4) - Games remaining: at Houston (8-3), at Carolina (3-8), Jacksonville (3-8), at New Orleans (7-4), Tampa Bay (4-7).

Outlook: The Falcons have an easier schedule than the Saints, especially if they can beat the Texans on Sunday.

DALLAS (7-4) - Games remaining: at Arizona (4-7), N.Y. Giants (6-5), at Tampa Bay (4-7), Philadelphia (4-8), at N.Y. Giants (6-5).

Outlook: The schedule is favorable and as long as they don’t fall apart, they should outlast the slumping Giants.

CHICAGO (7-4) - Games remaining: Kansas City (4-7), at Denver (6-5), Seattle (5-7), at Green Bay (11-0), at Minnesota (2-9).

Outlook: The remaining schedule isn’t that daunting, except for the Packers, but the QB situation is a mess.

DETROIT (7-4) - Games remaining: at New Orleans (8-3), Minnesota (2-9), at Oakland (7-4), San Diego (4-7), at Green Bay (11-0).

Outlook: They’re 2-4 in their last six after a 5-0 start. If they can’t upend the Saints, they’re going down.

N.Y. GIANTS (6-5) - Games remaining: Green Bay (11-0), at Dallas (7-4), Washington (4-7), at N.Y. Jets (6-5), Dallas (7-4).

Outlook: They’ve tanked it the past two seasons and they could do it again with a formidable schedule awaiting.