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Falcons say they’re ready for season opener

Coach Mike Smith and the Falcons suffered their first loss of the regular season last year when the Saints knocked them off in Week 9, and the two rivals will kick off the 2013 regular season against each other Sunday. (Reuters News Service)

Coach Mike Smith and the Falcons suffered their first loss of the regular season last year when the Saints knocked them off in Week 9, and the two rivals will kick off the 2013 regular season against each other Sunday. (Reuters News Service)

ATLANTA — Experimentation period is over for the Falcons.

Falcons coach Mike Smith paid lip service to the exhibition games while his staff was experimenting in several different areas.

He was more concerned with getting the revamped offensive line tested, while breaking in some new defensive alignments and preparing two rookie cornerbacks to contribute.

After reaching the NFC Championship game last season, the Falcons are being touted in several corners as a Super Bowl contender. But they went 0-4 in the exhibition season and looked rather shoddy in doing so.

No team has gone 0-4 in the preseason and won the Super Bowl in a full 16-game season, according to footballgeography.com. The 1982 Washington Redskins won the championship in the strike-shortened season after going 0-4 in the preseason. They finished 8-1 in the regular season.

The 2000 New York Giants were 0-4 in exhibition games and reached the Super Bowl, but lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Falcons coach Mike Smith was the linebackers coach on that staff.

The 1990 Buffalo Bills were 0-4 in exhibitions and reached the Super Bowl before losing to the New York Giants in the infamous “wide right” game.

The Falcons clearly have not emphasized exhibition games under Smith. They were 1-3 last season before going 13-3 and winning the NFC South title.

In 2011, they were 0-4 before going 10-6 and earning a wild-card berth.

Under Smith, the winningest coach in franchise history, the Falcons have posted five consecutive winning seasons and have gone to the playoffs four times.

Smith admits that the Falcons do a lot of experimenting in the exhibition season.

“We spent time saying ‘we have to see if this guy can handle this coverage’ or ‘that technique,’” said Smith. “It’s all about the evaluation process in building your team and putting it together.”

They were trying to simulate against as many regular-season situations as possible, especially for right tackle Lamar Holmes and cornerback Desmond Trufant.

“You want them to have some tough days,” Smith said. “You want them to experience that and see how they are going to respond to it.”

Smith said in his first season back in 2008, the Falcons did play to win the exhibition season.

“In the first year, obviously, we wanted to go out and try to win and probably played it a little bit differently,” Smith said.

Getting to the regular season healthy was also a factor in the Falcons’ exhibition-season approach.

“Our No. 1 goal has been to be as healthy as we possibly can and expose the players to things that are going to help them when we get into Week 6 or when we get into Week 12,” Smith said. “It’s a long season and on that 53-man roster everybody is going to have to contribute. We have to get everybody prepared for a long season that we’re getting ready to start.”

The offensive line was a glaring weakness in the exhibition season, but the Falcons believe the group will bond quickly in the regular season.

“Our left side is very experienced, tough and consistent in their own rights all the way through to a second-year center, who has a real good understanding of how we play this game and interacts very well with Matt Ryan, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

SERIES HISTORY: 88th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 46-41. The Saints stopped the Falcons from reaching the 9-0 mark last season in the Superdome. They split the series as the Falcons won at home. The game will mark the return of New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who was suspended last season for his role in the notorious Bounty Gate scandal.