Mickles: Saints happy to labor as game week begins

Monday was the day New Orleans Saints coaches and players have been looking forward to for 41/2 months.

They didn’t even mind working on Labor Day, because a bonus practice on the day that most Americans relax while bidding adieu to summer meant only one thing: The regular-season opener is almost at hand.

Monday’s practice began game week for the Saints, whose season-opener Sunday with the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome won’t be your garden-variety season opener.

Not by a very long shot.

The Saints have been anticipating Sunday’s game since the NFL released the schedule in April, when they learned they wouldn’t have to wait one minute longer for the opportunity to fire a warning shot at the hated Dirty Birds in their bid to regain the NFC South title they won in 2006, ’09 and ’11.

With that, the Saints began a 41/2-month stretch that included offseason strength and conditioning drills, classroom work, organized team activities, minicamps, and finally, training camp.

Through it all, they couldn’t afford to focus on their important date with the Falcons because they were busy trying to get their own plays down — rep after rep after tedious rep.

Until Monday, that is.

When they reported to work for a team meeting Monday morning, there were only 53 players on the active roster and eight practice squad members — a sure sign that it’s time to tee it up for real.

Even the past couple of weeks, when the Saints ramped up their preparations by sneaking a peek or two at the Falcons, they were dealing with pesky preseason games.

From here on out this week, it’ll be all Falcons all the time.

“The practice periods are now spent with offense and defense working against carded plays rather than against each other,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of shifting gears. “We will have a competitive period each practice where we work first offense versus first defense. But we are (now) into carding plays, or carding defenses, and working against the looks we anticipate seeing in the games.”

As such, it felt like game week — finally — especially for the players who were tired of training camp practices and exhibition games.

“It did, it really did,” outside linebacker Junior Galette said of completely turning their focus to a real game. “It felt like game week last week preparing for them because we put some things in.

“Atlanta, we’ve been talking about that game for quite a while now,” he added. “We know what’s ahead of us. … We know that it’s not an Oakland Raiders kind of team. This is a big team we’re going to play, so we’re ready to get after it this week.”

Maybe. But if it’s a little extra special to inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, who played four seasons with the Falcons before joining the Saints last year, he’s not letting on.

Just like he did last November when his old and new teams met twice in a span of 18 days, Lofton said Sunday’s game is like any other to him.

It means more, he said, to the team in general.

“Everybody’s excited to actually be playing football that actually counts,” he said. “We’ll be playing in front of our fans, and we’ve got some of the best fans. So we look forward to doing that.”

It’ll also be Payton’s first real game in 20 months after his season-long suspension last fall. But like Lofton, he tried to divert the attention from him.

“We play in a lot of games with a lot of hoopla around it — whether it’s Sunday nights, Monday nights, or postseason games,” Payton noted. “It’s still about protecting the football. … It’s still about blocking and tackling.

“It’s about all the things that we have control over. Those other things, we’ll try to eliminate (them) as best as we can.”