Falcons-Saints Preview

The Associated Press

Sean Payton is looking to take the focus off of him as he returns to the sideline for the New Orleans Saints.

The defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons know all too well how dangerous the combination of Payton and Drew Brees have been.

Payton will be in the spotlight when these division rivals open the 2013 season Sunday at the Superdome in a matchup that has been dominated in recent years by the Saints.

The Saints coach was forced to sit out the 2012 season as punishment for his role in New Orleans' bounty scandal. New Orleans slumped to a 7-9 record as its run of three straight playoff appearances ended.

Payton is trying not to treat his first game since a postseason loss in San Francisco following the 2011 season any differently.

"We play in a lot of games with a lot of hoopla around it, whether it's Sunday nights, Monday nights, or postseason games, it's still about protecting the football," he said. "It's still about blocking and tackling. It's about all the things that we have control over, but those other things, we will try to eliminate as best as we can."

The Saints are 10-2 against the Falcons with Payton and Brees together, with the quarterback throwing for 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Now Brees has his trusted play caller back.

"Sean is a very good football coach," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "His record speaks for itself. He is one of the best play callers in the league right now. He is an important part. When you have your play caller back, we anticipate we are going to see some things different than what we've seen last year, when he wasn't there."

Atlanta may now be considered the team to beat in the division after going 13-3 last season to earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for the second time in three years.

Smith and Matt Ryan finally earned their first postseason victory after three defeats by beating Seattle. Atlanta fell one game short of the Super Bowl by blowing a 17-point lead in a 28-24 loss to the 49ers in the conference title game.

The Falcons know that the Saints remain their biggest challenger in the South. New Orleans ended Atlanta's 8-0 start with a 31-27 home victory last Nov. 11 before the Falcons won 23-13 at home 18 days later.

"Obviously it is a place we are very familiar with, (and) a team we are very familiar with," said Ryan, who is 1-4 at the Superdome. "We know it's going to be a tough challenge for us down there, (it) always is."

Brees has unpleasant memories of the last meeting as he threw five interceptions for the first time in his career and saw his NFL-record streak of 54 games with a touchdown pass end.

"It was crummy," he told the Saints' official website. "It's funny because I watched the film and it's like, I could have very easily thrown five touchdowns, instead of five picks. But coulda, shoulda, woulda."

Offense wasn't a problem last year for a Saints' unit ranked first in the NFC with 422.8 yards per game, but a defense that allowed a league-record 7,042 total yards certainly was. That resulted in the dismissal of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was replaced by former Dallas coordinator Rob Ryan.

Ryan's unit will start the year without Jonathan Vilma, who has been placed on short-term injured reserve. Fellow linebacker Will Smith is out for the year with a torn ACL.

The Falcons faced Rob Ryan with the Cowboys last season, and feel they will be ready for his 3-4 scheme.

"It's not like the 3-4 is something that has just been invented," Smith said. "Rob does an outstanding job with his defenses everywhere he's been. He will create some issues for offenses."

The Falcons are unsure whether Roddy White will be available, although the wide receiver returned to practice Wednesday after being out with an ankle injury. White led Atlanta with 1,351 yards receiving in 2012, with Julio Jones adding 1,198 as the duo combined for 17 TD receptions.

Matt Ryan finished with career highs of 32 touchdowns and 4,719 yards while Brees led the league with 43 TD passes and 5,177 yards.

The biggest offensive addition for either team is Steven Jackson, signed by Atlanta to a three-year deal this offseason. The former Rams running back has topped 1,000 yards for eight straight years.

"Steven has been great for our football team," Ryan said. "He is a great leader. Obviously, he has been an incredible player for his tenure in the league. He is a huge addition for us."

Both teams feature terrific tight ends. The Saints' Jimmy Graham was second among all tight ends with 982 yards a season ago with an NFC-high nine TD catches, while Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez had 930 yards and eight TDs as he returns for a 17th season after initially saying 2012 would be his final campaign.

Atlanta has tried to bolster a pass rush that produced 29 sacks - with 10 coming from since-released John Abraham - for the league's fifth-worst total a year ago by signing veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora from the New York Giants. First-round pick Desmond Trufant, a cornerback out of Washington, says that he will be targeted by Brees - who expects a tight game in Week 1.

"Seven of our 10 games with the Falcons, since Mike Smith's been the head coach, have been decided by the last possession," Brees said. "Seven out of 10. It just goes to show you the type of battle this always is with these guys."

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