It's no secret that the Falcons, and their fans, generally despise the Saints and their fans, and vice versa, and the tension surrounding this rivalry has ratcheted up in recent years. That makes this season's opener for the Falcons, a road game against the Saints, particularly compelling.
But, is it really a rivalry? Former Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton didn't think so prior to the last time these two teams met, but Curtis Lofton said a bunch of stuff on his way out of Atlanta that suggested that he was at least a little disappointed that the Falcons let him walk in free agency, which may color his perspective. Linebacker Scott Shanle, often a healthy inactive on game days, and no longer with the Saints, called the Falcons New Orleans' "little brothers."
Of course, the Saints may feel differently about the "rivalry" aspect of their relationship with the Falcons after these teams' last meeting in the Georgia Dome. The Saints received a warm welcome to Atlanta from one airport worker who threw a few eggs at the team buses, prompting outrage that probably exceeded the severity of the crime.
Bus just got egged after landing in ATL by the ramp workers. Classy! "RISE Up" smh— Jimmy Graham (@TheJimmyGraham) November 29, 2012
Drew Brees pumped up the Saints before kickoff with a bunch of nationally-televised talk about the Saints "owning the division" before the Saints fell to their "little brothers," the Falcons, by a score of 23-13, helped along by five interceptions of Drew Brees' passes, and consequently snapping Brees' consecutive games with a touchdown streak.
It was glorious.
Part of the Saints' players' insistence that the relationship between the Saints and the Falcons is not a rivalry is their recent history against Atlanta. In the Sean Payton era, the Saints have been more successful, winning 11 of 14 matchups since 2006. That means that Mike Smith is 3-7 against the Saints during his tenure, and 2-6 against the Saints with Sean Payton on the sidelines.
But, if you're looking at the all-time history of Saints vs. Falcons, the Falcons have the advantage. The Falcons lead the series all-time, winning 47 of 88 meetings since 1967. And, the Falcons have dominated the Saints on the few occasions the teams have met in week one of the NFL season, with a perfect record of 6-0 against the Saints on opening day. Five of those wins came on the road, in New Orleans.
Another week one win in New Orleans won't come easily, though. The Falcons defense will need to be particularly prepared to take on Drew Brees and company. Brees looked very good in preseason, completing 25 of 34 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns over the course of three games. His completion percentage was a very respectable 73.5%.
New Orleans' defense is another story entirely. Last season they were not very good, to put it mildly, setting an NFL record for the most offensive yards allowed in a season with 7,042, and they have retained a lot of the players who made this achievement possible. The Saints did bring in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to replace Steve Spagnuolo, who is shifting the team to a 3-4 scheme. The Saints also have suffered a lot of injuries on defense--linebacker Victor Butler and defensive end Kenyon Coleman, hand-picked by Ryan from his squad in Dallas, are both out for the season, as is veteran linebacker Will Smith.
In case you weren't aware, Saints head coach Sean Payton, who is an offensive mastermind--and is apparently also magic, according to commentators, analysts, journalists, and Saints fans--will be back on the sidelines after serving an unprecedented year-long suspension for his role in failing to stop the pay-for-performance scheme that unfolded under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans. While it is reasonable to expect Payton to have a positive impact on how smoothly the New Orleans offense runs, there will be some growing pains on defense as the team adjusts to a new coordinator and a new scheme. New Orleans' defense should have their hands full with Matt Ryan and his various and sundry weapons on Sunday.
Games against the Saints are hard-fought, and generally go down to the wire, like great rivalry games should. Six of ten of the matchups between these two teams in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era have been decided by less than one touchdown. Both teams are going to want to start strong with a division win, and set the tone for their season on Sunday. The Falcons have more weapons on offense, going against a New Orleans defense with a lot to prove, and the Saints offense can give any defense fits, but the last time these two teams met, the defense had Brees' number.
Look for our writers' predictions for Sunday's game against the Saints later in the day, but--spoiler alert--I'll give you mine right now. The Falcons are going to have to work for it, but they will pull off the win. What do you expect from the Falcons against the Saints on Sunday?