The Falcons play the Saints this week, and that means we have to see the team we all hate most in the world to kick off the season. If the Falcons win, it will be a sign that this team is headed in the right direction and a crucial divisional triumph, not to mention a victory that will make whatever comes after it either sweeter or more bearable. If the Falcons lose...well, no, let’s not talk about that this early in the week. I don’t want to think about losing to these losers.
To kick off a week of previews for the matchup, let’s start by reviewing how the Saints have changed this offseason. Let’s celebrate, also, that Sean Payton is gone.
QB Andy Dalton
WR Jarvis Landry
DE Kentavius Street
S Tyrann Mathieu
S Marcus Maye
S Daniel Sorensen
As the team’s cap Olympics grow more and more daring and convoluted every year, they continue to import quality free agents regardless. Everyone’s tired of it.
Dalton is no longer the kind of quarterback you want to have to count on for long—he’s 35 years old and last enjoyed a good season in 2018—but is a likely upgrade on Trevor Siemian and Ian Book. That’s important because Winston is coming off a major injury and has only been healthy and playing in 16 games in half of his six full NFL seasons as starters, so Dalton may well see playing time at some point.
Landry was reportedly interested in joining Atlanta if the team had actually made the mistake of trading for Deshaun Watson, but instead he landed in New Orleans. He’s still a capable chain mover and possession receiver who the team needed in a re-tooling receiving corps, but is coming off a couple of seasons of statistical decline.
The biggest additions of all came at safety, where the team imported Marcus Mayes from the Jets and Tyrann Mathieu from the Saints to start for them. Maye was just arrested on a charge of aggravated assault with with a firearm after allegedly “pointing a firearm at a vehicle occupied by several juvenile females” in a road rage incident, which is not a great thing to be accused of. It remains to be seen whether it will imperil his availability for the Saints this year. Mathieu is still a very good player, unfortunately.
T Terron Armstead
S Marcus Williams
LB Kwon Alexander
S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (traded to Eagles)
Oily smirker and Kevin James-played bounty enabler Sean Payton
There are three major losses on this list, all of them magnified by recent developments.
The first is Armstead. Injury was a factor for him throughout his career and he only played in eight games in 2021, but Armstead was one of the best left tackles in franchise history and a terrific one overall. Long-term he’ll be replaced by rookie Trevor Penning if all goes well, but Penning is on the shelf for a bit and the job falls to James Hurst, a 30-year-old sometimes starter who played well a year ago. Hurst has to be good enough because he’s playing next to Andrus Peat, potentially making the left side of the line a trouble spot.
The defensive backfield is another trouble spot in the making. The Saints let Marcus Williams walk and recently traded Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, removing two high-end defenders. With Marcus Maye now facing legal trouble, the team could be much thinner than anticipated in the secondary, even though the group regrettably still has plenty of quality players.
The other big one is Payton. Say what you will about Payton—say he’s a desperate media manipulator who somehow got a movie made about him because the only thing he loves more than ill-advised choking gestures is attention, or that he has all the menace of a crocodile in a kiddy pool with none of the accompanying charm—but obviously the Saints were very good for a very long time with him at the helm, especially against the Falcons. Dennis Allen is likely an upgrade as a human being, but that would be true of billions of people, and Allen’s likely a mild-to-significant downgrade as an actual coach.
Finally, there’s Alexander, but the Saints seem to be in good shape there with Demario Davis and Pete Werner at linebacker. Regrettably.
Are the Saints better than the last time the Falcons faced them?
They probably are, unfortunately.
The loss of Gardner-Johnson and swapping out Marcus Williams for Marcus Mayes represents a pair of downgrades, but Mathieu is a potential impact addition for the secondary. Hurst is not better than Terron Armstead at left tackle, but otherwise the line is in the same form it was a year ago. The receiving corps is better with a healthy Michael Thomas, rookie Chris Olave, and Jarvis Landry than it was in its decimated form a year ago. Having Winston healthy and available, potentially for an entire season this time, is a huge lift over what the team had a year ago. There are still weaknesses and holes here, but given that Atlanta didn’t see noted Falcons-killer Winston a year ago and this group of weapons, they’re undeniably more dangerous for the Falcons than they were in 2021.
The biggest downgrade, hopefully, will be from Sean Payton to Dennis Allen as the head coach. Payton was a spiteful little goblin, sure, but he also presided over the greatest run of success New Orleans has ever had against Atlanta. Allen will hopefully be less successful and less competent at the helm, allowing the Saints to slowly slide back into the mire of mediocrity where they belong. There’s little question that he has talent to work with, however. Ugh.
The important takeaway here is that the Saints will unfortunately not be a pushover matchup to kick off the season, which means we’ll get a pretty full measure of how improved this Falcons team is right away. With any luck all those changes won’t add up to a successful season in New Orleans, but on paper at least they’re still a formidable football team. The Falcons will have to come out of the gate strong to deliver a welcome and just loss to the Saints to start the season.