PREVIEW: Falcons open season at Saints

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s 56 wins are the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons in NFL history, but he is still looking for his first Super Bowl win. (Reuters)

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s 56 wins are the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons in NFL history, but he is still looking for his first Super Bowl win. (Reuters)

NEW ORLEANS — If the New Orleans Saints want to prove 2012 was a fluke and they’re still the class of the NFC South, they’ll have a prime opportunity to make an argument today, as they host the defending division champion Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints have dominated the series in recent years, winning 11 of the past 14 meetings, but they missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2008. With head coach Sean Payton returning after being suspended last season for his role in the team’s bounty scandal, New Orleans hopes to regain its supremacy over the division.

Granted, the Saints handed the Falcons their first loss last year, a 31-27 defeat in Week 10 in New Orleans, and it did little to slow Atlanta on its way to the NFC Championship Game.

The Falcons returned the favor in Week 13 in Atlanta, picking off Drew Brees five times in a 23-13 win. Atlanta upgraded its offense by signing running back Steven Jackson and also coaxed tight end Tony Gonzalez back for one more season.

For Gonzalez, however, he knows this is his last shot at a Super Bowl title.

Gonzalez has peace of mind and clarity as he’s set to enter the 17th and final season of his storied career in the NFL. It’s a slight departure from last season, where he left a sliver of hope when he stated repeatedly that he was 95 percent sure, not 100 percent, he would retire after the season. After nearly reaching the Super Bowl, Gonzalez, 37, found it too hard to walk off into the football sunset. The Falcons found that prospect even more difficult and chased him. Now, he’s set to run out of the tunnel at the Superdome at 1 p.m. Sunday to face the rival New Orleans Saints and start one more season. The Falcons and Gonzalez worked out a lucrative two-year, $14 million deal and a creative work arrangement that led to his return. The second year was for salary-cap accounting purposes. He’s certain, though, that this is it.

“The question that we get sometimes is, ‘If you knew the day you could die, would you want to know?’” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know how I would answer that question. But I know I can answer (the retirement question because) this is my last year coming up. You kind of don’t take things for granted, and you enjoy every moment that you can.”

Atlanta has some new faces — and question marks — along the offensive line but is otherwise loaded on that side of the ball. The bigger concerns are on defense, which is never good when facing Brees and the Saints. Atlanta lost key players at every level of the defense but brought in defensive end Osi Umenyiora and cornerback Desmond Trufant to help plug two of the holes.

Even without Payton calling the plays, the Saints ranked second in the league in total offense a year ago, and they aren’t likely to miss a beat on that side of the ball with Brees at the helm. The only area the offense stands to improve is in the turnover department, as the Saints had 24 giveaways last year. The defense was historically bad in 2012, but the addition of some new personnel, as well as new coordinator Rob Ryan, should help it improve somewhat, if not significantly.

Nobody will be more instrumental in the Falcons’ success — or disappointments — this season than quarterback Matt Ryan, whose 56 wins are the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons in NFL history. Ryan signed a hefty $103.75 million contract extension after guiding the Falcons to the NFC championship game last season. He will be backed up by untested Dominique Davis.

At running back for the Falcons, Steven Jackson was picked up in the offseason and will start in front of

Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. Jackson, formerly of the St. Louis Rams, is a better fit for the offense because he is a better pass catcher than longtime Falcons runner Michael Turner, who lost his cutback ability. Jackson was highly productive with the Rams, rushing for 10,135 yards and 56 touchdowns since 2004. He also has caught 407 passes for 3,324 yards and eight touchdowns. Ewing showed that he could lead block in the exhibition season. Rodgers and Snelling will back up Jackson and Smith and Vaughan will expected to contribute on special teams.

Also on offense, the receiving corps of Roddy White, Julio Hones and Harry Douglas is looking build on last year’s breakout season.

With Jones and White on the field together, defensive coordinators must chose which player to double. The move to send five picks to Cleveland in order to move up 21 spots to draft Jones in 2011 is looking like a steal. White, who may be slowed by a ankle injury, played at a Pro Bowl level last season. Gonzalez-White-Jones combined for 264 catches for 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Here’s a breakdown of the Falcons defense heading into today’s season opener:

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — RDE Osi Umenyiora, DT Jonathan Babineaux, NT Corey Peters, LDE Kroy Biermann. Backups — DT Peria Jerry, DT Travian Robertson, DT/DE Cliff Matthews, DE Jonathan Massaquoi, DE Stansly Maponga.

Umenyiora, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, was signed to replace John Abraham, who was not re-signed. Umenyiora has played in 10 playoff games and has registered 5.5 sacks in those games. Babineaux, one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the league, had 8.5 tackles for loss. Peters is trying to bounce back from a down year. Massaquoi will be the first end off the bench followed by rookies Goodman and Maponga. Biermann will be used in some linebacker duties.

LINEBACKERS: WLB — Sean Weatherspoon, MLB — Akeem Dent, SLB — Stephen Nicholas. Backups — Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow.

Weatherspoon, Dent and Nicholas will get a chance to continue to grow together. The unit struggled in the playoffs against the run and with their coverage of tight ends. Bartu and Worrilow were undrafted rookies who made the final roster. Weatherspoon, a former first round pick, had 114 total tackles with three sacks and an interception. He started to take on more of a leadership role and made strides, but came up short of a Pro Bowl level.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — RCB Desmond Trufant, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS William Moore, LCB Asante Samuel, Nickel Robert McClain. Backups — CB Robert Alford and Dominique Franks.

Trufant was drafted to take over for Dunta Robinson, who was released. The young corner will learn at the feet of Samuel. Moore and DeCoud went to the Pro Bowl last season as alternates. McClain played well as the nickel back and will have to hold off Alford. Franks played some nickel back and was the primary punt returner. Motta and Ishmael will help on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Jacquizz Rodgers, PR Harry Douglass or Robert Alford.

Alford was a dazzling punt returner in college and could provide a boost to the return game. Rodgers was solid as the kickoff returner, but rarely got past the first wave of tacklers. Bosher broke his own franchise-record for net punting average (40.7) and set a franchise-record for most touchbacks in a single season (45). Bryant, who’s been slowed by a back injury, set a franchise-record for most points in a single season with 138.


Reuters News Service and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report