ATLANTA (AP) — Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints will be watching the scoreboard when they close their regular season at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Saints must beat the Falcons to preserve their playoff hopes. The Saints also need the Los Angeles Rams to beat the San Francisco 49ers. The games will be played at the same time, providing opportunity for distraction on the New Orleans sideline.
“Now, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be peeking at the scoreboards when they come across on Sunday to see what that score is,” Hill said of the Rams-49ers game. “So, everyone will be aware of it. We’re aware of the situation and what needs to happen.”
New Orleans (8-8) has remained in the playoff race by winning three of four games, including last week's 18-10 home win over Carolina. The Saints have relied on their defense, which delivered seven sacks, including 3 1/2 by Cameron Jordan, against the Panthers.
The Saints have used four starting quarterbacks, including Hill, this season.
The Falcons (7-9) lost their slim playoff hopes with last week's 29-15 loss at Buffalo. It is the fourth consecutive season Atlanta has missed the playoffs. There have been signs of improvement under first-year coach Arthur Smith, but also much evidence of work left undone.
One of the Falcons' highlights was a 27-25 win at New Orleans on Nov. 7 as Matt Ryan passed for 343 yards and two touchdowns. Following a 4-12 finish in 2020, Atlanta has a 7-2 record in one-possession games this season.
The Falcons are left in the role of playoff spoilers as they look to complete a season sweep against their NFC South rivals.
“We still have one more opportunity to go out there and try to play as well as we can against a division opponent, good rival, who’s playing for a lot, too,” Ryan said.
Saints kicker Brett Maher has provided stability and accuracy when the need was great. He has made 13 of 14 field goals, including 12 straight, when the offense has struggled to finish drives.
“We’ve been in some games where I’ve had to do my part for our team to continue to have success,” Maher said. “That’s a fun thing to be a part of.”
Maher is one of five kickers who has been on the Saints roster this year. Wil Lutz, New Orleans’ only kicker the previous five seasons, has missed the season because of injuries.
PLAYING TO WIN
Smith said he doesn't expect motivation to be a problem against the Saints.
“We would think we had the wrong guys if we had to sit there and trick them and motivate them," Smith said. “That’s absurd.”
Asked about taking a longer look at backups in certain spots with playoff hopes erased, Smith said he'll be playing to win as always.
A hamstring injury could prevent Atlanta's Kyle Pitts from chasing Mike Ditka's NFL record for yards receiving by a rookie tight end. The injury limited Pitts to two snaps in the second half last week. He missed practice time this week.
Pitts has 1,018 yards, 49 shy of Ditka’s 1,067 in 14 games for Chicago in 1961. Hayden Hurst, one of several players activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list this week, could start if Pitts is held out.
Parker Hesse, who had three catches last week, was signed to the active roster and could be needed again at tight end.
Among other Atlanta players who came off the reserve/COVID-19 list were wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, defensive tackle Marlon Davidson and safety Jaylinn Hawkins.
PLAYING FOR FIELD POSITION
Hill is 6-2 in his career as a starting quarterback, even though he hasn't posted big passing numbers or led a lot of touchdown drives in recent games.
Hill sees the offensive production as a product of Payton’s more conservative plan when relying on defense.
“Our defense has been so good this season that I think the other side of that is, offensively, we try not to put them in bad situations,” Hill said. “We try to take care of the ball. We talk early in the week and say punting is not necessarily a bad thing. You can play the field position game."
RUNNING THE BACKFIELD
Falcons running backs coach Des Kitchens has been named offensive coordinator at Virginia and won't be with the team for the final game. Smith took a committee approach when coaching the running backs this week.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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