NEW ORLEANS — NFL’s schedulers always find a way to send the Atlanta Falcons to the Superdome for landmark games.
In 2006, for the first one played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the visitors were flattened by an emotional freight train.
Now comes Sean Payton’s return from his bounty ban before a fan base that has eagerly awaited the chance to cheer for the club’s only championship-winning coach in a meaningful game.
And by regular-season standards, a game with the Falcons is as meaningful as it gets for the Saints.
“The city is very excited. We’re very excited and it’s going to be a special game,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “I would say definitely it’s one of the most significant games we’ve started with.”
Saints players are careful not to make direct comparisons between the first game after Katrina with Payton’s first game back.
Of course they are different. Still, there is a convergence of factors that spike the level of excitement for Sunday’s regular-season opener between a proud Saints team trying to bounce back from the 7-9 season they endured while Payton was away, and a rival Atlanta squad that has no shortage of talent with which to defend its NFC South title.
“A big difference is that (Atlanta) team today is much better than that team we played in ‘06,” right tackle Zach Strief said, adding that the emotions flowing through the Big Easy this week pertain to sport, while the first home game after the storm exhibited “the emotions of life, which is incredibly stronger.”
Still, Strief said there was no mistaking that football fans in Louisiana were “amped up,” and that the Saints would feed off of the vibe.
“Sean’s back, and it’s our biggest rival in the first game — at home,” Strief said. “So you don’t want to lose that one.”
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was playing for Boston College in ‘06, and enjoyed the feel-good story of the Saints’ post-Katrina return to the rebuilt Superdome. He did not quibble with the suggestion that the Falcons looked like sacrificial lambs that day, but he also said this time would be different.
Here are five things to know heading into Sunday’s 88th meeting of these longtime divisional rivals:
FALCON FRUSTRATION: Whether the Falcons have been playoff worthy or not, they haven’t had much luck beating the Saints since 2006, when Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined forces in New Orleans.
The Saints have won 11 of the last 14 meetings, and Atlanta fans don’t need to be reminded where last season’s 13-3 Falcon squad saw its eight-game season-opening winning streak end. Only one of the Falcons’ three victories since ‘06 came in the Superdome, and that took overtime in 2010.
DEFENSIVE TEST: This game marks the first real test for the Saints’ new defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Payton hired Ryan after last season, when New Orleans gave up a league-record 7,042 yards and ranked 31st in points allowed. Ryan has scrapped the Saints’ old 4-3 front and installed a 3-4 scheme filled with disguised blitzes, hoping this approach is more like the one that worked when the Saints were a playoff team from 2009-11.
If the new product is effective against an offense like Atlanta’s they’ll know they’re on to something. They’ll have to find a way to stop not only Matt Ryan, but receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Steven Jackson.
YOUNG SECONDARY: Falcons first-round pick Desmond Trufant is set to start at cornerback, while another rookie cornerback, Robert Alford, will see significant action on passing downs. All they have to do is not get fooled by Brees, who threw for league highs of 5,177 yards and 43 TDs last season.
FAMILIAR FACES: The Saints offense, which during the past seven years has led the league four times and has never been ranked worse than sixth, has all of its main pieces back. Brees will have running backs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles lining up behind him, Graham at tight end, and veterans Marques Colston and Lance Moore at receiver. Even receiver Robert Meachem is back after a year away in San Diego. Meanwhile, two new receivers, rookie Kenny Stills and second-year pro Nick Toon, had productive preseasons.
PROTECTION QUESTION: While the Falcons have talent galore at skill positions, their offensive line is unproven following the retirement of center Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo in a cost-cutting move.
Clabo’s projected replacement, Mike Johnson, also was lost for the season with a knee injury. Matt Ryan was sacked five times in a preseason game against Tennessee and run-blocking was inconsistent. Lamar Holmes, who played in only one game as a rookie in 2012, is expected to start at right tackle.