Return to New Orleans: More than just a football game
Falcons vs. Saints: Which team has the edge?
Another semblance of normalcy returns to New Orleans on Monday night.
For the first time since the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina, the Superdome hosts a football game when the New Orleans Saints meet the Atlanta Falcons in a matchup of 2-0 NFC South rivals.
In August 2005, the Superdome was a worldwide focal point of the damage and chaos from one of the strongest hurricanes in American history, which killed nearly 2,000 people. Katrina’s winds ripped the roof from the stadium, and some 30,000 refugees eventually were sheltered there.
By the time the last of those survivors left almost a week later, the stadium—the host for six Super Bowls and a papal Mass—was a wreck. Seventy percent of the roof had failed, almost 4 million gallons of water had to be pumped out, and mold and mildew quickly grew inside the filthy Superdome.
That forced the Saints to play their home games last year in San Antonio, Baton Rouge, La.—and one game against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., which was considered a home contest for the Saints even though it was played at Giants Stadium.
Veteran running back Deuce McAllister didn’t expect to be able to run on the Superdome turf again.
“Thinking back on some of the images you saw, some of the things that you heard occurred in the dome, no, I didn’t think that we would return and possibly play in the Superdome,” he said.
With $184 million in grants from federal and state agencies and the NFL, the stadium was scrubbed down, rebuilt and refurbished. On Tuesday, the team announced it has sold out the entire regular-season home schedule for the first time since its inception in 1967.
“We know that the Superdome was symbolic of a lot of misery,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. “It’s now a symbol of our recovery. It stands as a symbol of all of our experiences over the past year.”
On top of that, there’s a pretty good matchup as the stadium reopens its doors for the Saints’ first game there since Dec. 26, 2004—a 26-13 New Orleans win over the Falcons.
Monday’s contest will also mark the home debuts of quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush. Brees, signed as a free agent from San Diego, has completed 59.2 percent of his passes for 523 yards in leading the Saints to their best start since going 3-0 in 2002.
Brees overcame three early turnovers and was 26-of-41 for 353 yards with two scores Sunday in a 34-27 win over Green Bay.
“We really shot ourselves in the foot, but we were able to come back and overcome it, which really says a lot about this team,” he said.
Bush had only six carries for five yards, but caught eight passes for 68 yards in the victory. In two games, the star rookie running back has accounted for 26.4 percent of New Orleans’ rushing and receiving yards.
Bush is second on the team with 21 carries for 72 yards, and he leads New Orleans with 15 receptions for 120 yards. He is also averaging 8.3 yards per punt return.
“He’s been willing to learn,” McAllister said of the No. 2 pick in the draft. “Anytime you get a guy coming in with as much hype as Reggie has had with him … then it’s kind of refreshing as a veteran player to be able to help him.”
The Saints’ rushing defense is tied with Pittsburgh’s for sixth-best in the league at 74.0 yards per game. New Orleans will have its hands full in trying to stop the Falcons’ ground game, which is coming off a record-setting day.
In a 14-3 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, the Falcons rushed for a team-record 306 yards. Warrick Dunn led Atlanta with 21 carries for 134 yards, while quarterback Michael Vick had 14 rushes for 127 yards.
“I don’t think any defense can stop us,” Dunn said.
The pair has helped carry Atlanta (2-0) to the league’s top rushing average at 279.0 yards per game, and the Falcons have 25 carries of at least 10 yards. Dunn leads the league with 266 rushing yards but has yet to score, while Vick posted the sixth 100-yard rushing game of his career.
“When you have Mike going one way and the backs going another way, they’re going to have to respect Mike,” Dunn said. “If those guys don’t respect him, he’s going to gain a lot of yards on the backside. If they do respect him, that’s just one less guy we have to worry about.”
Vick, though, has completed only 54.1 percent of his passes (20-for-37) for 232 yards. That may be enough for the Falcons, though, who are 16-6 against the Saints since 1995.
The Falcons defense has been just as impressive as the offense, limiting opponents to nine points—fourth-fewest in the league.
Atlanta’s biggest weakness has been its kicking game. Rookie Michael Koenen missed all four field goals from inside 40 yards in the win over the Buccaneers and is 2-for-8, forcing the Falcons to bring back 46-year-old Morten Andersen.
Andersen has played 354 games in his 23-year career, scoring 2,358 points. He is the Saints’ all-time leading scorer with 1,318 points from 1982-1994.
Andersen needs 77 points to move past Gary Anderson to become the league’s leading career scorer.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that was not a motivating factor,” Andersen said. “But what motivates me is being part of a football team that now has an opportunity to do something special again.”
Andersen also said returning to the city where started his career would be special.
“I’m really excited to be back in the NFL, especially playing the Saints this week because of the significance of this game for the city of New Orleans and the people of Louisiana,” he said.