As they open the 2014 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints are vying for a fifth straight playoff appearance with head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines, while quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons hope to bounce back from last year’s porous 4-12 campaign. Unfortunately for the Falcons their recovery might not start Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Since Payton took over the Saints in 2006 the Falcons have only managed to claim three victories over their NFC South rivals.
Last year New Orleans began the regular season with a 23-17 victory over Atlanta, and then in Week 12 claimed a 17-13 road win. All told the Saints No. 4 defense sacked Ryan eight times and hit him another 16, and held the Falcons scoreless on six of their 20 offensive drives.
The New Orleans offense underwent few changes in the offseason, and figure to be a force in the NFC once again. The Saints will roll out quarterback Drew Brees, who’s racked up three straight 5,000-plus yard passing seasons and six consecutive seasons with at least 33 touchdown passes. And tight end Jimmy Graham inked a new four-year, $40 million contract extension after leading the NFL with 16 touchdown passes and totaling 86 receptions for 1,215 yards.
First-round draft selection Brandin Cooks is also expected to take on a big role in the Saints high-octane attack. The former Oregon State star receiver impressed during the preseason with his ability to stretch plays with his speed for big gains.
However the Saints did say goodbye to running back Darren Sproles, trading him to Philadelphia in the offseason. Doing most of his damage as a pass-catching back, Sproles averaged 77 receptions a season during his three years in New Orleans, and the team will now turn to third-year back Mark Ingram and the tenured Pierre Thomas to carry most of the rushing attack.
The Saints defense, which was also No. 4 in points allowed last season, let safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper walk in free agency, but upgraded to former Bill Jairus Byrd with a six-year, $54 million deal. Boasting 22 career interceptions with 33 passes defended, Byrd should help the Saints force more turnovers after they ranked 29 th in the league with 18 last season. How Byrd, along with corners Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson and second-year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, matchup against Atlanta’s dangerous receiver tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones will likely be the key to the game.
Jones only played in five games last year after suffering a season-ending foot injury, but showed why he’s one of the budding superstar receivers in the league with 41 receptions for 580 yards and two touchdowns before he went down. White missed the first three games of his career last season, and his 63 catches for 711 yards and three touchdowns were his lowest numbers since his second year in the NFL.
Of course Ryan will need some time in the pocket to find Jones and White, and Atlanta was allowed 44 sacks last season, the 10 th most in the NFL. Ryan still notched 4,525 yards and 26 touchdowns, his third straight season with at least 4,000 yards, but Atlanta’s dropped from No. 8 in points scored in 2012 to No. 20 with 22.1 points a game. Running back Steven Jackson also missed four games, but was still the Falcons leading rusher with 543 yards. Atlanta wound up last in the NFL in rushing.
The Falcons were hoping for improvement on the o-line this year, but were already struck by a major injury. Atlanta’s offensive line suffered a huge blow in the preseason when left tackle Sam Baker went down with a torn patellar tendon, and now first-round selection and tackle Jake Matthews will be tabbed to fill the void.
It will be a difficult first career game for Matthews, with the Saints sending out edge rushers Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, who combined for 24.5 sacks last season.
Time: 1 p.m. EST
TV Channel: FOX
Betting Odds: New Orleans -3
Over/Under: 51.5 points
Predicted Score: Saints 34, Falcons 27