This week, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said it was impossible to consider any regular-season opener a must-win game.
He was right, at least in the strictest sense. Brees and the Saints have 15 more games to play after they host their hated rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, on Sunday.
But the Saints won’t have a better opportunity to force the Falcons to chase them in the race for the NFC South — the opposite of what occurred last season. In outside linebacker Junior Galette’s words, “Atlanta is one of the better teams in the division. We have to get rid of them first.”
The conditions to do that will be there Sunday.
A capacity crowd will pack the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to welcome coach Sean Payton back from the yearlong suspension he served after the bounty scandal. An offense that set numerous league records in 2011 and ranked No. 2 in yardage last year is intact, and changes on defense have the team hopeful after its historic struggles in 2012.
The Saints are 11-3 against the Falcons since Payton became coach and Brees arrived as quarterback, and Atlanta has beaten New Orleans in the Superdome just once in the past nine years.
“It is one-sided,” Galette said of the rivals’ recent matchups. “Maybe they’re scared to come into the Dome, but we beat them at their house, so I don’t really know what it is.”
Whatever it is, exploiting those advantages Sunday would let the Saints avoid a repeat of last year, when they started 0-4 and the Falcons won their first eight games.
Before finishing 7-9, the Saints ended the Falcons’ win streak in a clash at the Superdome. That did little to slow Atlanta, which won the NFC South title and then fell 10 yards short of playing a Super Bowl in New Orleans in a 28-24 loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
Atlanta certainly has the tools to dull some of the Saints’ edges. On defense, Falcons defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann will test Charles Brown (starting his first game at left tackle) and right tackle Zach Strief.
Umenyiora, who spent 2012 with the New York Giants and came to Atlanta in free agency, had six sacks last year, and he either hit or hurried quarterbacks on almost 40 other occasions. Biermann added four sacks and 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
On offense, the Falcons retained all of their main weapons — quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White (who’s questionable with an ankle injury), wideout Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who have all gone to the Pro Bowl and set individual franchise records last year.
They’ve added running back Steven Jackson, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in eight of the nine seasons he spent with the St. Louis Rams. Jackson has run for 462 yards and four touchdowns the past four times he faced the Saints.
Trying to contain all of that will be a Saints defense whose coordinator, Rob Ryan, was hired in February because his predecessor, Steve Spagnuolo, directed a unit that surrendered the most yards in league history last season.
While learning a new 3-4 scheme, Ryan’s players encouraged observers by racking up 17 sacks in four preseason games, just 13 shy of the Saints’ regular-season total in 2012. But a rash of injuries is forcing the Saints to count on three outside linebackers — Galette, Martez Wilson and Parys Haralson — who didn’t play a preseason snap to handle much of the work against the defending division champs.
Rob Ryan on Friday expressed confidence in his outside linebackers, singling out Galette as someone he thinks will “be great.” Of the Falcons, he said, “They can throw it, and they can run it. We have to be at our best, and we plan on being it.”
Brees should get plenty of shots to target a rookie cornerback — Falcons first-round pick Desmond Trufant. And the Saints defense may get the chance to push an unproven Atlanta offensive line around.
The Falcons, who finished the preseason 0-4, lost projected starting right tackle Mike Johnson for the season to a broken fibula and dislocated ankle. Their options now are second-year pro Lamar Holmes or veteran Jeremy Trueblood, who was signed Tuesday.
Payton refused to describe Trufant or the Falcons’ offensive line as weaknesses to attack. But it was obvious his players were confident. At the end of a news conference this week, Brees was asked whether he knew his record against Atlanta off the top of his head.
“Yes, I do,” he said, then immediately left the microphone stand.
It would have had the same effect if he picked up one of the mikes in front of him and dropped it to the ground.