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By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons have waited months to get that sour taste of defeat out of their mouth and will begin defense of an NFC South title Sunday against the rival New Orleans Saints in the season opener for both clubs at the Superdome.
The Falcons had the NFC's No. 1 seed in 2012 with a 13-3 record and blew a 17-0 lead in the conference championship versus the San Francisco 49ers.
Led by Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons had hope that homefield advantage throughout the playoffs would send the club to its second Super Bowl appearance. However, poor play by Mike Nolan's defense and no points from the offense in the second half ended any chance for the Falcons' first Super Bowl berth since 1998.
Head coach Mike Smith and Ryan got their first playoff wins together versus Seattle and the Falcons have compiled 36 wins over the past three seasons. Ryan has helped the Falcons become a perennial favorite to win the NFC South, something the franchise has accomplished twice in the last three years. The one more commonly known as "Matty Ice" was entering a contract season and the Falcons took care of their prized QB with a five-year extension in July.
Ryan's deal is reportedly worth $103.75 million, with the Boston College product receiving $59 million guaranteed and scheduled to make $63 million over the first three years of the deal. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Ryan is coming off his best statistical season, notching career bests in touchdowns (32), passing yards (4,719) and completion percentage (68.6) in 2012.
"My goal, and my mindset has been the same since 2008," Ryan said. "It's about winning a championship. And it's about getting rings. I'm just happy I'm gonna have the opportunity to do that here."
The future is bright for Ryan and the Falcons as they prepare for another season with the usual suspects, especially on offense. Roddy White and Julio Jones are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez is back for what is expected to be his last season. Gonzalez knows what's at stake with Atlanta and wanted to be a part of something special.
Gonzalez took to Twitter to voice his pleasure: "The lure of being on such a great team and organization, along with unbelievable fan support was too good to pass up."
With running back and touchdown machine Michael Turner no longer with the Falcons, the team needed to bolster that area and added veteran Steven Jackson in the offseason. Jackson cemented his legacy with the St. Louis Rams and is hoping to ignite Atlanta's stagnant ground attack, which was 29th in rushing yards a year ago with 87.3 ypg. Much like Gonzalez, Jackson is no spring chicken and knows his time is coming up. He has been used in all facets during the preseason and will give defenses trouble in the passing game.
Passing is what the Saints do very well and that is expected to continue with head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines.
Due to his alleged involvement in a bounty scandal, Payton was suspended without pay the entire 2012 campaign. Payton, the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, was accused of trying to cover up a system of payouts on targeted players from opposing teams.
Payton, one of just seven active coaches to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, is back with the Saints and excited to resume head coaching duties.
"Just getting back to being out on the field in practice and having a chance to coach in a regular game, that part of it is exciting," Payton said earlier this month. "The fans have been great. They get excited about our team, especially at the start of the season after everything that went on a year ago. I know our players are excited to play."
The Saints lost their edge a bit without Payton and lost their first four games of last season en route to a 7-9 finish, the worst since an identical mark back in 2007. They managed to get their act together by winning five of the last nine games of the season and Drew Brees had another epic campaign. He was one of the heavy supporters for Payton and is glad to hear his voice again.
"I had Sean Payton in my ear for 5 1/2 years," Brees said in late July. "I've got confidence in whomever is calling the plays, but I'm happy to have Sean's voice in my ear (again)."
Brees finished first in the NFL last season with 5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes and was tied with 19 interceptions. The veteran quarterback is the bona fide leader of this team and the Saints would be in deep sludge without him. Brees, one of the more intelligent signal callers in the league, still has a bevy of weapons at his disposal in New Orleans' fast-paced style of offense. The Saints enjoy attacking opponents through the air and, with Payton back, will compete with Atlanta again for NFC South bragging rights.
New Orleans is expected to have a four or five-game turnaround in 2013 if the offense can revert back to its balanced ways under Payton. The ground game finished 25th in the NFL with 98.6 yards per game and it will once again be a committee approach this season.
The Saints and Falcons split both meetings last season. The Falcons lead the all-time series with the Saints 46-41, but New Orleans has taken four of five and 11 of the past 14 matchups in the series.
Atlanta is 1-2 in its last three season openers
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Saints deserve a lot of credit for how well they played without their head coach last season and it can only get better in 2013. However, the Falcons are the new kids on the NFC South block and are favored to win the division for a second straight season and a third time in four years.
How will that happen? Ryan needs to continue his rise to the top among quarterbacks and has the weaponry to do it. White was bothered by an ankle problem in the preseason and will most likely be lineup with Jones. Jackson is hoping to make a difference in his first season with the Falcons and will be used in all facets of Dirk Koetter's system.
"It reminds me of my younger years when I was used more as a receiver out of the backfield," Jackson said. "It allows me to use more tools in the shed that I have and possess. It allows me to work on things I haven't done in a number of years."
Jackson is facing a Saints defense that was simply awful a year ago, finishing near the bottom in every major category. The Saints were last in rushing yards allowed (147.6) and total yards allowed (440.1), and 31st against the pass (292.6) and points allowed (28.4) under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose defense gave up 7,042 yards last season, the most yards given up by a team in NFL history.
Spagnuolo is gone and Rob Ryan is the new man in charge. The former defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys will implement his energetic 3-4 defense, which consists of position shifts and changes up front. Ryan tries to intensify pressure and hold up blockers to allow the linebackers and secondary to make plays. The Saints had just 30 sacks last season, while Ryan's Cowboys unit registered 34.
It could be a long afternoon for Ryan and the Saints because it will be much like a track meet on turf in the Crescent City.
Another matchup to keep an eye out for is Atlanta's rookie defensive back Desmond Trufant. Trufant will be thrown to the wolves right away against Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense. For Trufant's sake he'll have veterans Asante Samuel, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud in the secondary to help him out. But you can be sure Brees will be looking Trufant's way.
Payton said Sunday's game is obviously important not only because it's against the Falcons, but it signifies the start of a new season. He touched on the importance of protecting the football, making blocks and how tackling will be key in his first game on the sidelines since 2011.
The Falcons will make Payton's long-awaited return a challenging one, as Mardi Gras beads will remain in hand following this NFC South tussle with the Falcons marching out of the Big Easy victorious.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Saints 17
09/05 11:33:53 ET
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