Fresh off an appearance on HBO's “Hard Knocks,“ the Atlanta Falcons hope to deal an early blow to what many expect to be a Saints juggernaut in the NFC South. New Orleans is a near-unanimous choice to win the division, but an upset in the opener could signal a wide-open race. This traditional rivalry has yielded some classic moments, with Atlanta holding a 47–43 lead in the all-time series. In last year's opener, the Saints held off a Falcons team with Super Bowl aspirations, beating them 23–17 and sending them on an injury-filled downward spiral.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: New Orleans -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Big Expectations in the Big Easy
Judging from the preseason prognostications, the Saints are a lock for the playoffs and a decent bet to make a Super Bowl run. How will Sean Payton's team handle being the hunted in an improved NFC South? Last season, the Falcons entered the season with similar expectations and flamed out with a four-win disaster, although injuries were the primary culprit. These Saints look better prepared to deal with the hype than those Falcons did. Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have already combined to win a Super Bowl together, and they know what's required for a deep postseason run. The Saints have won 11 or more games in each of the last four seasons, and it will be a shock if New Orleans doesn't extend that streak to five.
2. The Falcons' Hard-Nosed Attitude
The Falcons' stint on “Hard Knocks” revealed a team with a mean streak. Tempers boiled over frequently while the cameras rolled, and efforts to establish a physical identity resulted in training camp fights and preseason game ejections. Atlanta will need to carry that attitude into the regular season while the respective lines, which were subpar last season, find their footing. The Falcons were last in the NFL in rushing in 2013, and they'll have to establish themselves up front to avoid falling into a shootout with the weapon-heavy Saints. Look for Atlanta to try to set a physical tone early in this one to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Matt Ryan.
3. Reversing the Road Woes
New Orleans was 3–5 away from the friendly confines of the Superdome in 2013, losing their last three regular-season road games to cost themselves playoff position. If the Saints have any hope of making a Super Bowl run, they'll need to secure home-field advantage — and to do so, they'll need to steal a few wins on the road. This is one of those opportunities. It's far too early to call this a must win for New Orleans, but the Saints need to excel in the winnable road games this season to earn what could be a decisive home playoff advantage.
Drew Brees owns half of the 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history, and armed with a formidable array of weapons, he's a strong candidate to post more outrageous numbers and earn MVP honors this season. To help him in his quest, he has buzzed-about rookie receiver Brandin Cooks joining his arsenal. As if the Saints offense wasn't powerful enough, Cooks might be the most explosive offensive rookie of the 2014 season. The Falcons may have had an offseason attitude adjustment, but it will take more than attitude to slow the Saints. Neither team got much done on the ground last season, but a high-flying, back-and-forth aerial show certainly favors the visitors. Give the Saints the nod on defense, too; Rob Ryan's crew fashioned an impressive turnaround last year, finishing third in the NFC in total defense and first against the pass. Finally, there's a coaching advantage as well. Under Payton, the Saints have won 11 out of the last 14 games in the series, a run that was preceded by a 16–6 Falcons run. Look for the Saints' recent dominance in the series to continue, even on the road, as Brees & Co. lay the groundwork for a special season.