When the Saints and Falcons renew their rivalry on Sunday, they’ll be doing so without many familiar faces.
The Saints finished 9-8 last season, their first without Drew Brees, and narrowly missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker. After losing their Hall-of-Fame quarterback, they enter their first season without Sean Payton as their head coach since 2005 (not counting the 2012 Bountygate season).
The Falcons were on the periphery of a playoff run last season before losing three of their four final games to finish 7-10. But now they are embarking on a rebuild after trading the face of the franchise, quarterback Matt Ryan, to Indianapolis.
The Falcons lead the all-time series, 54-52, including a narrow 27-26 edge in Atlanta. In this back-and-forth rivalry, the road team has won the last three matchups.
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -5.5
Tickets: As low as $153 on SITickets.com*
1. Have some notable Saints recovered from their injuries?
Jameis Winston will return as the starting quarterback after tearing his ACL in the seventh game of last season. This will be his third year in New Orleans after understudying in 2020, Brees’ final season. He completed 95 of his 161 pass attempts for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns, and three interceptions before his injury.
If Winston is not capable of completing a game, Andy Dalton will come off the bench. He started six of the eight games he appeared in last season in Chicago and connected on 149 of 236 pass attempts for eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The Saints will be heavily counting on wide receiver Michael Thomas, who missed the entire 2021 season after undergoing surgery on his ankle that June. In 2020, he only played in seven regular season games and two playoff matches due to the ankle injury plus a suspension for an altercation with a teammate. He contributed only 40 receptions for 438 yards and no touchdowns in his limited time. During training camp this year, he missed time in practices because of a lingering hamstring problem.
Dennis Allen has ended Taysom Hill’s experiment as a quarterback. The transition back to utility player has been disrupted by a lingering injury to his ribs during training camp. After posting 70 rushing attempts for 374 yards and five touchdowns plus four receptions for 52 yards in 2021, will he be recovered enough to match his numbers from 2021?
2. How will the Falcons’ new passing attack fare?
Ryan only missed three games since his rookie campaign in 2018, and he’s not the only familiar face absent from this offense. Calvin Ridley has been suspended for the season for betting on NFL games, and Russell Gage, second on the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2021, left for Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. The Falcons also released Mike Davis, who had the fourth most catches with 44.
Accordingly, the Falcons have a few additions to the offense’s starting lineup. Marcus Mariota joined his former offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, in Atlanta after two years in Las Vegas. Bryan Edwards also arrived from the Raiders in exchange for a 2023 fifth-round pick. The Falcons drafted Drake London with the eighth pick in the first round of this year’s draft. Will the two years together in Las Vegas help Mariota and Edwards spark the Atlanta offense?
3. How will the Saints’ revamped coaching staff adjust to different roles?
Allen is starting his second stint as an NFL head coach after Payton left the team in January. The Saints’ general manager, Mickey Loomis, promoted Allen after he served as the team’s defensive coordinator since 2015. Allen was the Raiders’ head coach from 2012 until being fired four games into the 2014 season.
Co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard will split Allen’s previous role. These two are quite familiar with each other, both having played at USC from 1998 through 2001. Nielsen joined the Saints’ staff in 2017 while Richard is in his second year with the Saints.
The Saints look like a team with some questions about its offensive weapons back from injuries. They were on the verge of a playoff berth despite having to resort to a journeyman, a jack-of-all-trades, and a rookie as their quarterback in nine games. The defense still appears as formidable as last season.