FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees stands just 305 passing yards away from breaking a hallowed NFL record.
If Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and his fan base -- who share a bitter rivalry with the Saints -- can do anything about it, they would prefer that Brees not break the record when the two teams meet in an NFC South showdown one week from today.
Smith's reasons are more practical than visceral. At 9-5, the Falcons are in possession of the conference's top wildcard spot and still have an outside shot at winning the division title. They would need to defeat Tampa Bay in their season finale and hope that the Saints (10-3) lose at home to Carolina in theirs -- combined, of course, with an Atlanta win at the Superdome to vault the Falcons to their second straight division crown.
If the Falcons can hold Brees to under 305 yards, Smith reasons that the Falcons will have a chance to win the game. Incidentally, Brees has averaged 341.4 yards per game in amassing 4,780 as he assaults Marino's 27-year-old record of 5,084.
"Of course, yes, not necessarily just because of breaking Marino's record," Smith said. "I think we will enhance our chances if we can keep him under that number. We're not really concerned about that number. We're concerned about the number that will be up on the scoreboard at the end of the game and it should be a fun game for us in terms of our preparation. It should be a fun game for our fans and we're looking forward to heading down on there on Christmas Day."
In attempting to limit Brees, the Falcons might get a boost in the form starting left cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler last season. Grimes has been inactive the last three games after undergoing a procedure on his knee.
Smith said that he expects Grimes to practice on Tuesday when the Falcons step on the field for the first time this week. He said he is unsure about starting nickelback Kelvin Hayden, who has been inactive for the last four games with a toe injury.
In place of Grimes and Hayden, Christopher Owens has taken over for Grimes and moved to the nickel in those situations and second-year player Dominique Franks has played the left corner in nickel situations.
"I think both of them have done a very good job," Smith said. "We are hoping tomorrow to have Brent Grimes back on the field, practicing, so that will be a plus. We do not know about Kelvin Hayden tomorrow. Maybe it'll happen on Thursday....
"Both of those guys have stepped in and have done a nice job and we need to have as much depth as we can in preparation for this offense that we're getting ready to face because they are just lighting up on the scoreboard. They are moving the ball both through the air and on the ground, so it will be a big challenge and we need to have as many healthy guys as we possibly can."
One of the best defensive jobs a team has done against New Orleans was on Dec. 11 when the Saints slipped by the Tennessee Titans 22-17. New Orleans had only six points at halftime in that game.
Smith was asked what the Titans did that the Falcons might be able to replicate.
"I think the thing you have to do against New Orleans is that, one, you want to control the ball on the offensive side," Smith said. "They are so explosive that they can gain yardage in big chunks and they can do it through both running the football and passing it. You want to try to disrupt the timing of the passing game, but, at the same time, not allow them to run the football and that puts you in a little bit of quandary in terms of how many guys you're going to commit to the run, how many guys you're going to commit to the pass.
"I thought they physically set the tone, especially there in the first half, watching the Titans play."
In the Falcons' first meeting with New Orleans -- when the Saints won 26-23 in overtime as Smith memorably elected to go for it on fourth down from his own 29 yardline in the extra session -- the Falcons tried to answer that quandary by mostly playing their base defense to deter the run. New Orleans only attempted 16 runs and earned 41 yards.
But Brees passed for 322 yards, completing 30-of-43 attempts with two touchdowns. In that game, the Falcons did not sack Brees nor did they intercept him.
They are hoping a rejuvenated John Abraham can help. Abraham struggled through a groin injury early in the season and he said last Thursday that he did not begin to feel 100 percent again until three weeks after that game. Abraham totaled 3.5 sacks in Thursday's 41-14 win over Jacksonville.
"Hey, if I was a defensive end and had three-and-a-half sacks, I'd be feeling pretty good too," Smith said. "We've had a maintenance plan going for a number of our players. One of the most important things for us as a coaching staff and our preparation is not only having our guys prepared for the Xs and Os of the ballgame, but to have them prepared physically and some of the older guys over the last six or seven weeks... we're holding these guys out for non-injury issues and we certainly hope that it will benefit us through the last two weeks of the regular season that these guys that are a little longer in the tooth will be feeling pretty good."