Meridian Star

Sports

September 7, 2013

Payton, Saints ready for opener against Falcons

NEW ORLEANS —  NFL's schedulers always find a way to send the Atlanta Falcons to the Superdome for landmark games.

    In 2006, for the first one played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the visitors were flattened by an emotional freight train.

    Now comes Sean Payton's return from his bounty ban before a fan base that has eagerly awaited the chance to cheer for the club's only championship-winning coach in a meaningful game.

    And by regular-season standards, a game with the Falcons is as meaningful as it gets for the Saints.

    "The city is very excited. We're very excited and it's going to be a special game," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "I would say definitely it's one of the most significant games we've started with."

    Saints players are careful not to make direct comparisons between the first game after Katrina with Payton's first game back. Of course they are different. Still, there is a convergence of factors that spike the level of excitement for Sunday's regular-season opener between a proud Saints team trying to bounce back from the 7-9 season they endured while Payton was away, and a rival Atlanta squad that has no shortage of talent with which to defend its NFC South title.

    "A big difference is that (Atlanta) team today is much better than that team we played in '06," right tackle Zach Strief said, adding that the emotions flowing through the Big Easy this week pertain to sport, while the first home game after the storm exhibited "the emotions of life, which is incredibly stronger."

    Still, Strief said there was no mistaking that football fans in Louisiana were "amped up," and that the Saints would feed off of the vibe.

    "Sean's back, and it's our biggest rival in the first game — at home," Strief said. "So you don't want to lose that one."

    Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was playing for Boston College in '06, and enjoyed the feel-good story of the Saints' post-Katrina return to the rebuilt Superdome. He did not quibble with the suggestion that the Falcons looked like sacrificial lambs that day, but he also said this time would be different.

    "Certainly I watched that game in 2006, I think as did everyone in the country. It was an awesome win for that organization at that time and I think it kind of lifted everybody's spirits," Ryan said. "At this point, I think they are two different things. We are just going to prepare the same way we always do ... for a tough road test.

    "We know it's going to be loud. We know it's going to be tough. And we know it's going to be a 60-minute football game," Ryan said. "That's really where our mindset is."

    Here are five things to know heading into Sunday's 88th meeting of these longtime divisional rivals:

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