NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton would welcome a little deja vu.
About three years and one month ago, the Saints played one of the most memorable games in franchise history at home on a Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons.
It was the Saints’ first game in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and they looked invincible on that emotionally charged night in the Louisiana Superdome, winning handily to stay undefeated and in first place in the NFC South.
“The dome advantage for a home team, and specifically the New Orleans Saints and what we get from our fans, is significant,” Payton said. “Especially in a prime-time game, like Monday night will be, we’re getting used to playing in these type of games. We certainly expect it to be as loud as we’ve had in there. I thought the last game against the Giants was magnificent. I think it will be a great atmosphere for our team to play in and an edge.”
Tonight’s matchup of the Falcons and Saints is about as big as a midseason game can get. It’s a nationally televised clash of longtime rivals who also are the class of the NFC South this year. The Saints (6-0) are trying to stay unbeaten and take a three-game lead in the division, while the Falcons (4-2) would enjoy the distinction of being the first to knock off New Orleans while pulling within a game of the division lead.
These teams have developed increasing similarities in recent seasons. Both have coaches who talk about changing the culture of franchises whose histories have been dominated by losing. The Saints have never been to a Super Bowl. The Falcons have never had two winning seasons in a row.
Both teams have balanced offenses, with good quarterbacks, big-play receivers and strong running games. Matt Ryan, who led Atlanta to the playoffs as a rookie last season, has had continued success this season by hooking up with receiver Roddy White and new tight end Tony Gonzalez. Although Michael Turner is off his 1,699-yard pace from last season, he continues to lead Atlanta’s running game with 403 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Saints once again have a league-leading offense led by Drew Brees, who spreads the ball evenly among Marques Colston, Lance Moore, tight end Jeremy Shockey and others. New Orleans’ improved running game, powered by the trio of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, ranks third.
On defense, both teams have shown the ability to play well. Atlanta’s defense has slipped at times this season, but the Falcons’ pass rush still poses a threat as long as John Abraham is lined up at defensive end.
The Saints’ pass coverage is vastly improved, producing 13 interceptions already, four of which have been returned for scores.
Yet, for all the comparable building blocks that have made these franchises better, they seem to be taking divergent psychological approaches to this particular game.
The Falcons won’t deny the playoff implications each divisional contest holds, but, at least publicly, coach Mike Smith and Ryan are playing it cool.
“To me, this is not any different than any other ballgame,” Smith said. “As I told our guys when we started the season, in 2008 we had 16 1 o’clock games. This year we have somewhat of a change in our sequencing. It doesn’t really matter if the game’s kickoff is at 1, 4, 8, 9 or midnight, we have to go out there, play and compete. It should be a fun night.”
Added Ryan, “Our focus is just on winning, not trying to find out where we are or anything like that, just trying to win. And at the end of the year, you count them up, find out if you are in the playoffs. That’s our focus.”
The Saints, by contrast, are embracing the hype, hoping to capitalize on playing at home by stirring their already ecstatic fans into a frenzy.
“There is no bigger game this season as of yet than Monday night football against the Atlanta Falcons at home, in the dome, our first divisional game — all of those things. The game couldn’t be any bigger,” Brees said. “We do have more on the line. ... If you win, you’re up three; if you lose, you’re only up one. That’s a big swing.”
The Saints are 3-0 at home. Then again, they’re 3-0 on the road, too. Still, Payton has mentioned repeatedly how the Superdome crowd seemed to cause problems for opponents, particularly Eli Manning when the Saints beat the Giants 48-27 in Week 6.
“There was a communication issue that Eli had with the protection and all of a sudden, he’s hurried and there’s an incomplete pass,” Payton said. “The combined effort of 70,000 people can have an effect on a third-and-8 and can have an effect on every third down. ... It’s special and we appreciated that.”