The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints will kick off the season by renewing their bitter rivalry Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
It's fair to say the Saints have had the upper hand, winning six of the past seven. However, last year's two wins by New Orleans were decided by a grand total of 10 points.
"When we play Atlanta, it oftentimes comes down to the final drive. It did in last year's games, and I'm sure it will on Sunday," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:
McClure: Mike, we all know how dangerous the Saints' aerial attack can be with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, but I'm hearing a lot about rookie Brandin Cooks. How much of a problem does Cooks pose for opposing defenses and how will his skills be utilized?
Triplett: Yeah, just when you thought these teams knew each other backward and forward, a new wrinkle gets added. I'm excited to see what Cooks can do in this offense. He really lived up to the hype during the preseason and training camp, making big plays on almost a daily basis. He has "wow" speed that makes guys miss on screens and reverses and allows him to get downfield for deep balls. I'm not sure that he'll be a 1,000-yard receiver since the Saints spread it around so much, but he gives them yet another mismatch to exploit -- which they do so well. He should help fill the void left by Darren Sproles in that "dynamic speed" area.
So what kind of shape is Atlanta's defense in this year? I know losing Sean Weatherspoon was a big blow. Can the Falcons match up against Cooks, Graham and Colston, among others?
McClure: It's going to be hard for the Falcons to match up with any of those guys, so defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have to be creative with his scheme. He mixed it up with zone and man during the preseason, so we'll see how things develop. I like second-year cornerback Desmond Trufant's chances against any of the receivers, including Colston, because he's so talented and competitive. Robert Alford has the speed to hold his own at the other cornerback spot, and then there's a trio of veteran DBs in Josh Wilson, Robert McClain and Javier Arenas.
Defending Graham will be a rough task because he's too fast for linebackers and too tall for defensive backs. He beat strong safety William Moore on a double move for a touchdown last season. I would try to give him added attention and make the other guys beat you.
The Saints didn't have to face Julio Jones the last time they came to the Georgia Dome. How prepared are they to keep Jones in check, particularly with Roddy White and now Devin Hester alongside him?
Triplett: I can't wait to find out. It's the matchup of the week, strength vs. strength. The Saints added safety Jairus Byrd to an already-excellent secondary, which was led by breakout guys Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro last year.
Lewis, who should've made the Pro Bowl, is one of the most underrated guys in the league right now. After coming over as a free agent from Pittsburgh, he emerged last year as a true No. 1 corner, matching up against top receivers on a weekly basis. Obviously Jones is even more dangerous than most, so I'm really looking forward to that matchup if it happens. I imagine Lewis will shadow Jones, though I don't know that for a fact since Atlanta's receiving corps is so deep. The Saints' No. 2 corner is Patrick Robinson, who's more of a question mark. He has great speed and athleticism, but has battled injuries and inconsistency in his career and he's hit-and-miss in press coverage. So the Falcons will definitely test him.
I watched "Hard Knocks" and saw that the theme of camp was being tougher and responding to hits like the one Vaccaro laid on Matt Ryan last year. So my question is, how long until we see center Joe Hawley shoving Vaccaro or someone else to get the team and the home crowd fired up in this one?
McClure: As long as he's not taking a pottery break, Hawley should be out there mixing it up all afternoon. Offensive line coach Mike Tice wants his linemen to show more fight. At the same time, the Falcons can't afford to have a player such as Hawley ejected, so such play shouldn't cross the line. Tice said his guys won't be "punked" this season, so we'll see if that's accurate. I don't see Ryan taking any late shots or unnecessary hits without one of his teammates getting in the offender's face.
Besides getting tough along both the offensive and defensive lines, the Falcons got better on special teams with the addition of Hester, arguably the greatest return man of all time. Will the Saints kick to him?
Triplett: The Saints have a lot of history with Hester and the Bears, so they're well aware of the threat he presents. Luckily, the Saints have a great asset in Thomas Morstead, one of the best punters in the league and their kickoff specialist. But the jury is still out on what the Saints' coverage units will look like. They have a handful of new, young guys expected to play key roles on special teams. That's an area that has been hit-or-miss at times for the Saints in the past, so it will absolutely be a huge point of emphasis.
The matchup that I think most favors the Saints is their pass rush against Atlanta's offensive line, especially after Sam Baker's injury. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are both coming off of 12-sack seasons for the Saints. How do you think rookie Jake Matthews and the rest of the line will hold up?
McClure: Matthews will hold up fine. He experienced some growth already in the preseason going up against J.J. Watt and Cameron Wake. He just has to get adjusted to moving to left tackle after starting out on the right.
The Falcons should be solid inside with Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah at the guard spots and Hawley at center. The concern has to be Lamar Holmes at right tackle, although he was rather solid at the end of the preseason. We'll see if it continues because he had his struggles against the Saints last season.