The race for NFC South supremacy has tightened because the New Orleans Saints have been inconsistent lately while the Atlanta Falcons have reeled off three straight victories.
The Saints, however, believe they're poised to get their season back on track.
With the division lead at stake, first-place New Orleans looks to win consecutive games for the first time in a month by cooling off the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Saints (6-3) are one-half game ahead of Atlanta (5-3) but haven't always looked like a division leader of late. New Orleans followed a 62-7 win over Indianapolis in Week 7 with a stunning 31-21 loss to then-winless St. Louis. The Saints rebounded from that defeat with last Sunday's 27-16 win over a Tampa Bay team that beat them Oct. 16.
"This is a pretty critical time for us, this month of November," said Drew Brees, who has thrown a touchdown pass in 36 consecutive games to tie Brett Favre for the second-longest streak in NFL history.
"It's a time when a lot of teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and we want to be one of those teams. And this is when you want to be on a roll, so hopefully this is the start of that."
The Saints haven't posted back-to-back wins since a four-game run Sept. 18-Oct. 9, but they have won an NFL-best nine straight November games dating to 2009.
"This is the month in which you separate from being a playoff contender or not," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Teams that win in November are usually teams that make the playoffs."
The Falcons also have done a good job of taking care of business in November. Last Sunday's 31-7 win over the Colts was their sixth straight November victory.
"Coming off the bye week, we wanted to make sure that we started fast and I really liked the way our team did," coach Mike Smith said. "But for us, we've got to stay focused on what we need to get accomplished. We know we're playing an outstanding football team that has lots of weapons."
These teams, who split two matchups last season, haven't met since Dec. 27, when Brees' six-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 3:24 left gave the Saints a 17-14 win in Atlanta.
New Orleans has won four of five at the Georgia Dome, including two straight. The Falcons have suffered only two other losses in their last 22 regular-season home games.
The Saints have won eight of 10 overall in this series as Brees has thrown for 3,010 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has 3,004 yards passing in 2011 to become the first NFL player to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark in the first nine games of a season.
Although the Saints are obviously a pass-first team, opposing defenses have had to honor a sound ground game. New Orleans, ninth in the NFL with 126.0 rushing yards per game, is 6-0 when reaching the 100-yard mark but 0-3 when held below 100.
The rushing attack, led by Darren Sproles (347 yards) and Pierre Thomas (311), could have some trouble finding room to run Sunday. Since the start of October, the Falcons rank fourth in the NFL in rush defense (87.2 per game). It is uncertain if rookie Mark Ingram (329 yards) will return after sitting out the last two games with a heel injury.
"We've got to get a run game going," left guard Carl Nicks said.
An improved defense has keyed Atlanta's winning streak.
After allowing averages of 26.0 points and 383.4 yards through five games, the Falcons have held the opposition to 13.3 points and 272.3 yards per game in the last three.
"We're starting to jell," Smith said. "I like the way our guys are running. We're a team that has a defense that has some speed."
The defense is going to face a huge test this week, as the Saints lead in the NFL in total offense (445.1 ypg) and are second in scoring (31.9 ppg).
Atlanta's offense also is capable of putting up big numbers, averaging 30.0 points in its five wins, and seems to have found a new playmaker to join Michael Turner and Roddy White.
After missing two games with a strained left hamstring, Julio Jones had three catches for a season-high 131 yards last Sunday. He became the first rookie since the 1970 merger with touchdowns of 80-plus and 50-plus yards in the same game.
"It gives us another good player, another good option to have the football in his hands," said Matt Ryan, who has 12 touchdowns and one interception in his last seven November games. "He's a good player, and we're certainly better when we have him."
The Falcons could be facing a depleted New Orleans defense if linebacker Jonathan Vilma and cornerback Tracy Porter are unable to play. Vilma sat out last week with a sore left knee, and Porter left with a neck injury.