Southern supremacy on line Sunday

September, 24, 2010
9/24/10
11:27
AM ET
Sean Payton and Mike SmithUS Presswire, Icon SMICoaches Sean Payton and Mike Smith lead their teams into an NFC South showdown Sunday, and whichever team is victorious will have the early lead for the division title.
The man with perhaps the best vision in the NFL was asked the other day for his view of the Atlanta Falcons.

Drew Brees surveyed the field as he was asked if the Falcons appear to be “on the cusp’’ like the Saints were last year. He spotted something he liked in the question and he threw deep down the middle.

“Yes, because you have the offensive and defensive system that guys have been running for a while, so there’s a comfort level, and I know their personnel’s been very consistent,’’ the New Orleans Saints' quarterback said. “The young players they’ve added are talented guys, so I think they’re as good as they are from a personnel standpoint, defensively at least, as I’ve seen them.”

Welcome to the NFC South, where, at least on the surface, things are a little more laid back. Rivalries aren’t played out in the media and coaches and players go out of their way to kill each other with kindness.

“This is a tough division,’’ Brees said. “Anytime you play a divisional opponent there’s a lot of familiarity there and you just know that there are always close games. They’re always fighting . You both know each other’s personnel pretty well. I think a lot of it is about who can out-execute the other. It’s not about fooling them with trick plays or anything else. It’s just about lining up and being able to play better. They have a good football team and obviously they’ll be ready to play us. It’s a big challenge.”

Probably even bigger than the Saints and Falcons are willing to admit publicly. Let’s face it, the best rivalry in the NFC South these days is Atlanta and New Orleans. They were the top teams in the division last year and whatever happens Sunday when they play in the Louisiana Superdome will go a long way in deciding who wins the division.

Yes, Tampa Bay is 2-0, but let’s see that bandwagon roll a little bit more before including the Buccaneers in discussions about the division title. From the time predictions started rolling out this summer, the NFC South has been a two-team race.

In fact, the Falcons were a trendy pick to win the division, maybe even go to the Super Bowl. That may have ruffled some feathers in New Orleans, where fans can still feel the Lombardi Trophy. Even in the New Orleans locker room, there have been a few comments about how the Falcons were getting credit before they’d done anything.

Saints head coach Sean Payton stayed clear of any hint of that this week when asked if he cared that so many people had picked Atlanta to win the division.

“What do you think?” Payton said.

One reporter followed that up by saying he thought Payton did care and that he might use it as a motivational tactic.

“Honestly, I think that all of that is unimportant to all of us, myself included,’’ Payton said. "I really wouldn’t know how many people have picked them to win or us to win; it’s really unimportant. What’s important is what happens. To be honest with you, it’s not something that we’ve looked at and pointed at."

It’s only Week 3 of the NFL season, but this is shaping up as a huge game for both teams. The Saints (2-0) arre coming off a short week and a difficult Monday night win against San Francisco after opening the season with an emotional close victory over Minnesota.

Drew Brees
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDrew Brees said the Falcons are "as talented on defense as I've ever seen them."
You could look at New Orleans and say the Saints haven’t played particularly well in either game and that they’re banged up, especially at running back where Reggie Bush is out for about six weeks after suffering a broken right fibula against San Francisco. You could look at New Orleans and say the Saints are ripe for their first defeat since Week 17 last season.

But Atlanta head coach Mike Smith isn’t about to do that. He sees a division rival that the Falcons played tough twice last season but lost both times. And he sees Brees.

“He is definitely going to be the best quarterback that we’ve faced this season," Smith said."He may very well be the best quarterback we face all season -- two times. I think the biggest challenge is the surrounding cast that is around Drew Brees. They’re very, very talented at the wide receiver position. They’re very talented at the running back position and they’re very talented at the tight end position. It creates matchup issues, not only for our team but for any team that the New Orleans Saints play.”

The Falcons (1-1) had a dud game in Pittsburgh in their opener followed by a near-perfect game in routing Arizona in Week 2. If you’ve followed the Falcons at all, you know they limped to a 9-7 record last season with a bunch of injuries and some problems on defense.

If you followed the Falcons at all through the offseason, you know they spent their downtime working on ways to level the playing field with the Saints. They made one big move in free agency, signing Dunta Robinson. A team that hadn’t had a No. 1 cornerback in several years now does and that could help against Brees and his cast of receivers. The Falcons also drafted outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a guy who has the speed to match up with New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey and the ability to surprise Brees with blitzes.

Let’s turn back to the guy who can see the whole field for a scouting report on Atlanta’s defense.

“I think they’re as talented on defense as I’ve ever seen them,’’ Brees said. “They’ve got very active and athletic front four as well as some linebackers that can fly around, make all of the plays and a lot of tackles, get involved in the pressure packages quite a bit. Everybody in their secondary is pretty athletic with pretty good ball skills, and I just think they work well as a group collectively.’’

The volleys of praise could continue going back and forth a lot longer. The Saints and Falcons may be genuine in their respect for each other. But, in the best rivalry in the NFC South, all the sweet talk will go out the window when the Saints and Falcons hit the field Sunday.

Southern hospitality is one thing. Supremacy in the NFC South is something else entirely, and that’s what the Falcons and Saints will be playing for Sunday.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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