We’re days away from a matchup I’ve been waiting a long time for, the season opener between the Falcons and Saints. The last one was in 2014, but as Joe Carlino at Blogging Dirty notes, the Falcons are a sterling 7-1 in season openers against New Orleans and will hope to run that to 8-1 Sunday. Kicking off the season by beating the team we all love to loathe would be absolutely ideal.
We’ll break down the matchup from a bunch of angles this week, as is our custom, but let’s start with a quick overview.
If I were to do my usual NFL-wide rankings and see where the Falcons and Saints rank in key metrics like points and yardage on both sides of the ball, I’d be using last year’s stats. Those don’t seem very germane for either team, given how much the Falcons have changed and given that the Saints have a new head coach and an NFL quarterback back under center.
Instead, we’ll look at the expectations for the two teams, both internally and externally.
For the Falcons, fans are pretty divided between thinking this team will be below average in the extreme and slightly below average, with the bulk of fans I’ve seen predicting somewhere between 4-8 wins. There are the hardcore optimists and pessimists—more of the latter, and bless you all for it—but I think many of us are looking for and expecting improvement without it necessarily leading to a skyrocketing win total. Most of the national analysts and media think the Falcons will be somewhere between the bottom quarter and the very bottom of the league this year.
The Saints, naturally, have different expectations. Their fanbase is convinced that they’ll be good-to-great, with the most optimistic projecting the team to push past the Buccaneers for the NFC South. That’s somewhat in line with what the greater NFL world thinks, with most power rankings having the team in the top half of the league, though they’re all over the place within there. Some of this seems to be confident carryover from the recent past, when the Saints had Sean Payton as their head coach and (in my humble opinion) more talent on the roster.
It would be fair to say that broadly speaking, the NFL world has much higher expectations for the Saints than the Falcons. It will be extra sweet if the Falcons are the better football team, which is at least 50% of what I want from this season.
How the Saints have changed since the last time
We covered this earlier in the week, so I’ll make this brief. The Saints said goodbye to loathsome smirking toad Sean Payton and have Dennis Allen at the helm now, which is almost certainly a downgrade for them. It’s just unclear how much of a downgrade, given that Allen was in a bad position as the head coach of the Raiders in his last opportunity.
They’re rolling with what they hope is a healthy Jameis Winston this year after he got off to a really strong start and then was injured in 2021, and they’ve made some major additions to a shaky receiving corps by adding Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry. The safety group is nigh unrecognizable after they shipped out Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and let Marcus Williams walk, importing Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye instead.
They’re a changed team, in other words, though perhaps not a dramatically changed one. The question is whether they’re still a good team and, indeed, perhaps a better one than a year ago, and I suspect that they are. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean they’re going to win more games or beat the Falcons, but it’s fair to be clear-eyed about them.
What you need to know
The Falcons finished up last season playing the Saints, and all that was really at stake was pride for a team that couldn’t make the playoffs. This time around, the stakes are much larger, because it’s the first week of the season and Atlanta wants to prove they belong. Of course, the stakes are always high against the Saints, because losing to them sucks and beating them is as sweet as Mountain Dew syrup.
Adnan Ikic will go into the win versus loss stakes in more detail this weekend, but suffice to say a win here kickstarts a quality season for Atlanta and puts New Orleans immediately behind in the divisional race. It also sends an early signal that the Falcons can hang with contenders—something they couldn’t do at all in 2021—and that the offseason vows of improvement were promises rather than hopes.
To get there, they’ll have to show Marcus Mariota is capable of evading the pressure that’s sure to come from a quality New Orleans front, and that the line can both protect him and block well enough to get the ground game rolling. They’ll need to put the clamps on a rebuilt receiving corps that will almost certainly give them more trouble than the ragtag group New Orleans fielded in 2021 was capable of doing. And they’ll need to avoid falling into a significant hole, something that doomed them in the season finale back in January, because the offense should be improved but may still not be capable of mounting furious comebacks.
Both squads are relatively healthy for this one—the Falcons have a couple of contributors on the shelf and the Saints will be without rookie tackle Trevor Penning—and that should put them on fairly even footing. I like Atlanta’s chances of winning, but it will probably depend a lot on how much the Falcons have truly improved this summer, given that they have made more drastic changes than the Saints.