Week 1: Sunday September 7 2014, 12 pm CT, Fox
NFC South arch rivals square off in the Georgia Dome Sunday as the New Orleans Saints travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons in the season opener for both teams.
The Falcons lead the all-time regular season series 46-43, though New Orleans has dominated the recent spate of matchups, having emerged victorious from 13 out of the last 16 meetings.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is looking to put a dismal 2013 season behind them, having finished a disappointing 4-12, their worst record since 2007.
The two teams opened last season against one another in New Orleans, as the Saints edged the Falcons 23-17 in a week 1 thriller at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome. The Saints also won the second meeting between the teams, beating Atlanta 17-13 on a Thursday night contest in November of last year.
This will be the first time the two rivals have opened the season against one another in Atlanta since 1981. The Falcons won that matchup 27-0.
New Orleans- WR Kenny Stills, S Marcus Ball and FB Erik Lorig did not participate in practice and are unlikely to play Sunday.
Atlanta- DT Corey Peters and S Dezmen Southward were full participants in practice, and should play.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan/WR Roddy White vs Saints CB Patrick Robinson- Following the Saints' release of veteran cornerback and 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey, Robinson looks set to start outside opposite Keenan Lewis. Lewis will likely spend most of the day covering Julio Jones, leaving Robinson to tango with White.
Expect Ryan to target White early and often, testing the Saints' corner who missed all but two games last season due to a serious knee injury. Robinson has been stellar throughout training camp and offseason workouts, though his performances in preseason games have been inconsistent to an extent. Robinson, owner of 7 career picks, has good ball skills and plays with aggression, so an over-opportunistic approach by Atlanta could backfire if the Saints' corner is on his game.
Saints OLB Junior Galette vs. Falcons RT Lamar Holmes- Fresh off of signing a brand new contract with the Saints, LB Junior Galette is looking to build off his fantastic 2013 season, in which he compiled a career-best 12 sacks. The former undrafted free agent will be licking his chops as he sets to square off with Holmes, who played sparingly last season after recovering from a foot injury.
Holmes slots in at right tackle following the season-ending injury to Sam Baker, which has forced Rookie Jake Matthews to move over to left tackle. Matthews will have his hands full with Cameron Jordan, and the task won't be any easier for Holmes, who will square off against the sack-hungry Galette. The Saints defense made significant strides in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's first season in charge in 2013, and are looking to take a further step this year. The pass-rush generated by the likes of Galette, Jordan and Akiem Hicks will be paramount to the team's defensive success, and the Saints will need to put as much pressure on Ryan as possible to prevent the talented thrower from having time to pick his spots with the football.
New Orleans 31-20 Atlanta
Opening up on the road is always tricky, and the Saints have not won a season-opener away from home since they beat the Cleveland Browns 19-14 in coach Sean Payton's first regular season game in charge back in 2006. The Georgia Dome will be rocking as the Falcons look to begin their new season with a fresh outlook and high hopes following last season's disappointment.
Nevertheless, the Saints have what it takes to get the job done. An All-Pro quarterback, a reliable running game which features three talented backs, a strong offensive line, bolstered by the rapid development of LT Terron Armstead and the presence of Pro Bowl guard tandem Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, a dynamic tight end in the form of Jimmy Graham, a talented, capable group of receivers and a defense that, as a whole, only continues to improve as they gel. Upgrade: Jairus Byrd figures to help an already-improved Saints defense get even better in 2014.
The Saints' secondary was upgraded with the signing of free agent safety Jairus Byrd, and the team also managed to retain Rafael Bush, who had agreed to an offer sheet with Atlanta as a restricted free agent. The Saints will welcome Atlanta's attempt to move the chains and put up points via the air, as RB Steven Jackson has only recently returned from a nagging hamstring issue. Look for the Saints' secondary to be aggressive as they rely on their front 7 to put pressure on Ryan and limit the Falcons' rushing attack.
Offensively, Drew Brees and his teammates looked as sharp as ever in the team's dress rehearsal against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, and should be expected to operate at optimum levels inside the Georgia Dome Sunday. Look for a big day through the air from Brees, with a healthy Marques Colston, a new toy to play with in the form of rookie wideout Brandin Cooks, and the most dynamic of all weapons in Jimmy Graham, who has tormented Atlanta to the tune of 500 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns against the Falcons in just four pro seasons.
The game should be close early as both teams look to settle in without making too many mistakes, but the consistency and congruence of the Saints' attack, coupled with their improved defensive play and dependable special teams, should be enough to see them through. The X factor could be the play-calling of Sean Payton, one of the best in the business, who rarely holds anything back in these types of settings.
This is only the beginning, as the two rivals will do battle once again in late December in a week 16 tilt. It will be interesting to see what kind of path each team takes by the time that game arrives. Needless to say, it doesn't get much better than kicking off a new season against your biggest rival.
Let the games begin.