Plenty of other high-profile games kick off the 2013 NFL season, so this early divisional tilt between the Saints and Falcons has flown under the radar as a lot of coverage has focused on Broncos-Ravens, Packers-49ers, and RGIII’s return Monday night. But Atlanta opening at New Orleans could be a great one.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, L.A.
When: Sunday, Sep. 8 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL Game Rewind
What’s at Stake
It may only be Week 1, but the balance of the NFC South division is already at stake. We tend to take more notice of these divisional battles at the end of the season, because by then we have a better idea about the likely fates of the winner and loser. But this Falcons-Saints game will count as much in the standings as their late-season game will. The NFC wildcard race should be very competitive this season, so one of these teams could miss the playoffs if they don’t win the division. Obviously this is a chance for the Saints or Falcons to start with an important division win, while saddling their main rival with a costly division loss.
Falcons Player to Watch
He’s not just a big-name free agent: RB Steven Jackson should be an important part of Atlanta’s game plan this week and all season if they hope to still be playing into January and possibly February. We know QB Matt Ryan can fling it, and we know he’s got great weapons to catch it. But if S-Jax can be productive enough to keep defenses honest, this could be a very dangerous team. Against the Saints, Jackson will be crucial not only to the success of the offense, but will also help keep Saints QB Drew Brees on the sidelines.
Saints Player to Watch
Okay, I’m gonna cheat a little bit here, and pick Head Coach Sean Payton as the “player” to watch. Payton was suspended all of last year, and we saw just how much a coach can matter in the NFL. I’ve read a lot of previews predicting that Payton could “pull a Belichick” and go into “F-You” mode all year (like the Pats record-setting 2007 season following Spygate) and just ride Brees and their multitude of weapons, run up the score and pile up the wins. I agree. They were basically branded as cheaters in light of those suspensions when the league made an example out of New Orleans so they could appear to be acting tough to crack down on player safety. And now the Saints will want to show and prove that they can win fair and square, and will better able to do so with their head coach back at the helm.
This team was overwhelmed with distractions and looming suspensions at this time last year. And I’m sure Payton will remind his team that they came out flat in Week 1 at home and got shredded by a rookie QB named Robert Griffin III. This Atlanta offense is also a touch matchup, but at least there will be no surprises. These teams know each other well, and Payton will have his team ready from the first whistle.
Matchup to Watch
They key matchup in this game will be how the Saints defense holds up against the Falcons offense. (Granted, Atlanta’s D will also have its hands full trying to stop Brees and company.) If the Saints can slow Atlanta’s potent offense and at least show signs that they are much improved from last season’s league-worst unit, it could signal a return to Super Bowl Contender status for New Orleans, a team that’s been under the radar this offseason while the hype was focused on mostly on the 49ers and Seahawks, with a little on the Packers (and Falcons?) as the main NFC powers. It won’t be easy with top pass rusher Will Smith out for the season with a torn ACL. With an assist from a loud Superdome crowd and 1st-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro at safety, they might be able to keep the Atlanta offense in check. Or just make sure Brees gets the ball last.
As good as the Falcons look on paper by adding Jackson to their offense, there always feels like there’s something missing from their defense. They now wear the bull’s-eye in this division, and Payton, Brees, and the Saints would love to snatch that crown back (for at least a week) and hand Atlanta this early loss. I think New Orleans comes out focused and notches a crucial win. Saints 28, Falcons 24.