Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints Preview

An opening week win against the Saints would be huge. (AP file photo)

An opening week win against the Saints would be huge for the Falcons. (AP file photo)

What better way to open the 2014 NFL season than to take on your most-hated division rival?

The Atlanta Falcons will play hosts to the New Orleans Saints this Sunday in what could be dubbed as a “must-win” game.

Well, it could be a “must-win” game for Atlanta, at least.

The Falcons own the overall head-to-head regular season series with a 46-43 edge, and the two teams have met just once in the postseason – in 1991 – with the Falcons pulling out a 27-20 victory.

However, since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have won 13 of the 16 matchups.

Mike Smith has posted a 3-9 record against the Saints since being named head coach in 2008, with the last win coming in 2012 in the Georgia Dome.

The Saints present a tough matchup for the new-look Falcons right off the bat. Atlanta’s re-tooled offensive line will have its hands full with New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who was recently rewarded with a new four-year, $41.5 million extension.

Both players flourished last season when Rob Ryan came to town and switched the team’s defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Galette got to the quarterback 12 times, and Jordan did so 12.5. It starts with those two players up front if the Saints are looking to be one of the league’s top defenses again.

Rookie Jake Matthews was inserted as the left tackle after Sam Baker was lost for the season, and he’ll have his hands full. It will be a good test for Matthews.

Lamar Holmes is listed as the starting right tackle on the depth chart. The massive third-year player struggled when he was inserted into the starting role last season, but he’s looked solid throughout preseason.

New Orleans’ secondary will have its hands full with Julio Jones and Roddy White. The two receivers were never healthy on the field together last season – in the Week 1 matchup, White was limited by a high ankle sprain, and in the Week 12 meeting, Jones was sidelined after a season-ending foot injury.

The Saints went out and signed highly sought after safety Jarius Byrd to pair with second-year player Kenny Vaccaro. Keenan Lewis is a physical corner. The huge hole in New Orleans’ secondary is at the second cornerback spot with Patrick Robinson. The fifth-year corner has struggled throughout his career and is recovering from a knee injury he suffered last season.

If the Falcons offensive line holds up like they have in preseason, Matt Ryan should have no trouble finding Jones and White, along with Devin Hester, who was signed this offseason, and Harry Douglas, who led the Falcons last season with 85 receptions for 1,067 yards.

Defensively, Atlanta needs to find a way to stop Brees and Jimmy Graham.

Brees has a 13-4 record against the Falcons (one loss came when he was a member of the San Diego Chargers back in 2004), throwing for 5,140 yards and 34 touchdowns in those contests.

In four seasons versus the Falcons, Graham has accumulated 500 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. It’s going to be difficult for anyone on the Falcons defense to go one-on-one with the 6’7’’ tight end. He presents matchup problems across the board.

Just as the Saints defense provides a good barometer for the Falcons offense, the same will be true for the new-look Falcons defense matching up against the Saints offense.

Atlanta still doesn’t look to have a pass rush. The Falcons haven’t had much success sacking Brees – or any other quarterback, really – and it could be a long day if he’s given time to stand in the pocket and make the throws.

On the other hand, new additions Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will do wonders for the run defense.

The Falcons intercepted Brees five times and held him without a touchdown pass (snapping his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass) en route to a 23-13 victory in 2012. They’ll need to a similar defensive effort on Sunday.

The final drive in the games between these two teams usually comes down to the final drive. That should be the case Sunday, and, riding the emotion of opening up against their rival, I’m picking the Falcons to win in a shootout.

Check out my season preview for the Falcons.

Follow me on Twitter @projectjax.

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