1:00 PM ET, September 7, 2014
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
The New Orleans Saints have made reaching the postseason a foregone conclusion with coach Sean Payton on the sideline.
Adding another Super Bowl title has been a much more difficult challenge.
With most of the key contributors from last year's playoff team back, the visiting Saints begin a 2014 season they hope ends with the Vince Lombardi Trophy in their hands Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
New Orleans continued its recent success, which includes a Super Bowl title in 2009, with a bounce-back 11-5 finish last season. The Saints improved to 48-16 while reaching the postseason for the fourth straight year under Payton.
The only time the franchise hasn't made it to the playoffs in the past five years came in 2012 when Payton served his one-season suspension for his role in the team's bounty scandal.
New Orleans picked up its first-ever road victory over Philadelphia in January before falling at eventual champion Seattle in the divisional round.
"We look pretty good," said Brees, who has thrown for more than 5,000 yards and at least 39 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. "Now we have to go out and put it all together. We have to put together the team we know we can."
Brees led the NFC with a 68.6 completion percentage, 5,162 passing yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013, while throwing only 12 interceptions -- his fewest since 2009. He was particularly sharp in two meetings with Atlanta, completing 72.1 percent for 635 yards with four scores and one interception in a pair of New Orleans victories.
Graham totaled nine receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns in those contests, and has scored seven times in his last seven games against the Falcons. The All-Pro tight end finished with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and a career-high 16 touchdowns in 2013.
Marques Colston, the Saints' all-time leading receiver, and rookie Brandin Cooks are expected to be playmakers on the outside in Payton's pass-happy offense. Kenny Stills, however, could be out after re-injuring his quad during the preseason.
"They are going to have to put me on the bench, and that's going to be hard to do," Thomas said.
Despite their historic win in the postseason, the Saints are looking to end their struggles away from the Superdome. Their high-scoring attack managed just 16.7 points per game -- 17.3 below their home average -- while dropping five of their last six road games in the regular season.
The Falcons hope to be much improved on defense, as they ranked near the bottom of the NFL with 27.7 points and 379.4 yards allowed per game last year. However, they've already suffered a big blow with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon out for the season.
After going 36-12 during three straight playoff seasons, including a trip to the NFC title game in 2012, the Falcons are out to prove last year's 4-12 finish -- their worst since 2007 -- was a fluke.
"I don't think you can lose your confidence just based on (last season)," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "And I don't think we have. I think confidence is high here. I think guys expect to make the plays we need to make in order to win games."
Ryan threw a career-worst 17 interceptions and was sacked a career-high 44 times during the team's plummet, while the running game ranked last in the league and star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White were injured.
As a result, Atlanta drafted Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall, and he'll start at left tackle with Sam Baker going down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Jones and White finally appear to be healthy, but tight end Tony Gonzalez's retirement leaves a hole in the passing game.
Steven Jackson has battled a right hamstring injury throughout the preseason as he looks to rebound after rushing for 543 yards while missing four games with a left hamstring problem.
"Last year I was stressed to make sure I was out there on the field," he said. "I felt I had something to prove. And this year I said, you know what, I'm going to take it with a grain of salt."
New Orleans made tremendous strides under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who took a unit that ranked last in 2012 and made it the league's fourth best with 305.7 yards allowed per game.
Free-agent signee Jairus Byrd could improve the secondary after he had 22 interceptions in five seasons with Buffalo. The three-time Pro Bowl safety is expected to play despite missing two preseason games following back surgery.
New Orleans has won six of its last eight trips to Atlanta and 13 of 16 overall in the series.
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|Avg Points Allowed||37.0||34.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||NO|
|Rush Yds Allowed||NO|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|New Orleans leads 17-11|
|Nov 21, 2013||NO 17, @ATL 13|
|Sep 8, 2013||NO 23, ATL 17|
|Nov 29, 2012||NO 13, @ATL 23|
|Nov 11, 2012||NO 31, ATL 27|
|Dec 26, 2011||NO 45, ATL 16|
|Nov 13, 2011||NO 26, @ATL 23|
|Dec 27, 2010||NO 17, @ATL 14|
|Sep 26, 2010||NO 24, ATL 27|
|Dec 13, 2009||NO 26, @ATL 23|
|Nov 2, 2009||NO 35, ATL 27|
|Dec 7, 2008||NO 29, ATL 25|
|Nov 9, 2008||NO 20, @ATL 34|
|Dec 10, 2007||NO 34, @ATL 14|
|Oct 21, 2007||NO 22, ATL 16|
|Nov 26, 2006||NO 31, @ATL 13|
|Sep 25, 2006||NO 23, ATL 3|
|Dec 12, 2005||NO 17, @ATL 36|
|Oct 16, 2005||NO 31, ATL 34|
|Dec 26, 2004||NO 26, ATL 13|
|Nov 28, 2004||NO 21, @ATL 24|
|Nov 16, 2003||NO 23, ATL 20|
|Oct 19, 2003||NO 45, @ATL 17|
|Nov 17, 2002||NO 17, @ATL 24|
|Oct 27, 2002||NO 35, ATL 37|
|Dec 9, 2001||NO 28, @ATL 10|
|Oct 21, 2001||NO 13, ATL 20|
Matt Ryan threw for a career-high 448 yards Sunday, becoming the fifth quarterback since the 1970 NFL/AFL Merger to throw for at least 440 in a season-opening game that his team won. The previous four all led their teams to the playoffs, and two of them reached the Super Bowl that season.[+]
Matt Ryan completed 9-of-11 passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield for 224 yards Sunday. Ryan's nine such completions are a career-best. Ryan was 6-of-7 for 145 yards on such throws when targeting Julio Jones and Devin Hester, with the only incompletion coming on his final attempt of regulation. Drew Brees' two deep completions are tied for his 2nd-fewest in a game since the start of 2012 (0-for-8 vs Seahawks in 2013 Week 13). After catching his only target in the first half, Julio Jones was targeted eight times after halftime and had six receptions for 96 yards. Jones' six second-half receptions are a career high, and his eight second-half targets are tied for the second-most of his career.[+]
Brees/Ryan Throwing 15+ Yds Downfield Sunday
The Saints are the 21st team since the merger to allow at least 500 yards in the season opener. That porous defense has not been a good indicator of success: Of the previous 20, only 6 reached the playoffs:[+]
Teams to Allow 500 Yards in Opener - Since Merger
Matt Ryan was able to come through in the 2-minute drill Sunday, leading a game-tying field goal drive before winning in overtime. Last season the Falcons were in a similar position against the Saints, trailing by 6 with the ball, but Ryan was unable to get it done.[+]
Matt Ryan 2-Minute Drill vs Saints - Last 2 Openers
ESPN Stats & Information