(SportsNetwork.com) - It's Super Bowl or bust for the New Orleans Saints and their quest for glory begins Sunday on the road against the NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
The Saints struggled on the road last season, going 3-5 as opposed to an 8-0 mark at home, but defeat the Falcons on their own turf in Week 12. The Saints, who have won four of their last six season openers and started last season 5-0, opened the 2013 campaign with a 23-17 victory over the Falcons in the Crescent City.
Atlanta holds a slim 46-43 edge in the all-time series with the Saints, but has lost six of seven and 13 of the last 16 games between the division foes.
New Orleans has made the playoffs four times in the last five years and put its road demons to rest, temporarily, with a Wild Card win at Philadelphia on Jan. 4 with a 26-24 triumph. However, the Saints lost the following week to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
This year the Saints hope to bring the playoffs back to the Big Easy and quarterback Drew Brees is the one who can make that happen. Brees has thrown for 5,000 or more yards in each of the past five seasons and has 30 or more touchdown passes in each of the previous six.
Besides the precise passing of Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense, the return of head coach Sean Payton was a huge factor in getting the team back on track as one of the NFL's elite. Payton, of course, was suspended the entire 2012 season for his alleged role in "Bountygate" and watched his team finish 7-9 from afar.
Payton was back at it with the Xs and Os last season and helped guide the Saints to the playoffs for the fourth time since 2009, when they won the Super Bowl. The Saints went 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the second time in three seasons and ranked fourth in the NFL both on offense (399.4 ypg.) and defense (305.7 ypg.). Five players were elected to the Pro Bowl, including talented tight end Jimmy Graham, who signed a new deal in July.
Brees, Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and rookie wideout Brandin Cooks will be the main focal point of the offense, while the running backs will play as a committee.
Payton was asked about the important of starting fast in this league.
"We're all in a race to improve, even off the preseason," Payton said. "It's not going to be about the scheme, it's going to be about us improving our technique and us improving our fundamentals."
If there's a team in the league that has to prove last season was an anomaly, it's the Falcons. After a 13-3 2012 campaign and reaching the NFC title game, the Falcons fell flat last year to the tune of a 4-12 record.
One of the biggest reasons for Atlanta's demise was the foot injury to Julio Jones, perhaps one of the best wide receivers in the game today.
Jones played only five games and finished with 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns, one year after hauling in a career-high 128 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 scores. Jones' absence seemed to have an effect on quarterback Matt Ryan, who also had to deal with lingering injuries to veteran wide receiver Roddy White. White appeared in 13 games, grabbing 63 balls for 711 yards and just three touchdowns.
Ryan is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFC, but was sacked a career-high 44 times last season under an offensive line that was a complete disaster. The 17 INTs were also a career-worst, but he did manage to find enough time to surpass the 4,000-yard passing mark for a third straight year. The 26 touchdown passes were the lowest for Ryan since he had 22 back in 2009. Ryan, who threw 32 TD strikes in 2012, struggled without Jones for the last 11 weeks of the season and it cost Atlanta. Jones, though, is back healthy to team up with White, and also Harry Douglas is back as the No. 3 receiver.
The Falcons, losers in three of the last four season openers, are hoping that expectations aren't too high this season and they'll be able to fly under the radar and make a splash in the NFC once again. It will be a daunting task because the NFC is much like the Western Conference in the NBA with talented teams across the board.
Not only does Atlanta have to deal with the NFC South, but there are two to three contenders in the other three divisions, including defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. The Falcons emerging as a wild card team seems far-fetched right now, but anything is possible.
Falcons head coach talked about what to expect from the high-powered Saints.
"You can't put a whole lot into what you see in the preseason. They're a very good football team. 11-5 last year, they have an outstanding quarterback, they have a tight end that's going to be difficult to defend, and defensively, I think (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan does a very good job in terms of his game planning," Smith said. "I'm seeing a really good team that will be here on Sunday, and we've got to get our work done and be ready to go out and play a division game."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Balance is key to success in the NFL and the Falcons were anything but stable last season. Running back Steven Jackson appeared in 12 games and recorded a career-low 543 yards on 157 carries. Perhaps the Falcons made a mistake not bringing back Michael Turner and opting to sign Jackson, who did have six rushing touchdowns, but also entered 2013 with eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Atlanta's ground attack fell woefully short of expectations with an NFL-worst 77.9 yards per game.
Jackson, though, is ready to rebound and improve those marks in 2014.
"I'm extremely excited for Week 1," Jackson said. "It's been a training camp that I missed the majority of the time, but I've been working hard physically and mentally to prepare for this coming Sunday; I feel good about it."
Jackson is the NFL's active rushing leader and faces a Saints' defense that improved tremendously under Ryan, whose unit finished fourth in the NFL in total defense. The difference of 134.4 net yards per game from 2012 was the biggest by a club since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Saints fans want to know if rookie Cooks is ready for the bright lights of the NFL. With all-purpose back Darren Sproles in Philadelphia, the Saints moved up in the draft to select Cooks out of Oklahoma State and hope they don't miss a beat in their spread offense.
Cooks was the 2013 Biletnikoff winner as the nation's top receiver after catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards with 16 touchdowns as a junior.
Brees has plenty of weapons around him and it will be about sharing the ball among the pass catchers. Graham is certainly going to get his touches and the Falcons struggled to contain him in 2013. Graham caught a total of nine passes for 145 yards and two scores in two games last season, while Brees passed for 635 yards with four TD passes and an interception, completing 49-of-68 attempts. Atlanta's secondary could struggle this season and lost safety Thomas DeCoud to Carolina.
With 395 passing yards against Atlanta on Sunday, Brees would surpass Hall of Famer John Elway (51,475) for fourth place all-time.
Ryan has weapons as well and the Falcons are hoping Jones is back at full strength. Of course, Ryan will need time to find his man and rookie tackle Jake Matthews will face a stiff challenge against Saints' DE Cameron Jordan.
Falcons DE Kroy Biermann is back after suffering a season-ending injury last year. Biermann played in only two games because of an Achilles injury and the defense needs him at full strength in order to stay competitive this season.
Despite their struggles in 2013, the Falcons have compiled a 60-36 regular season record, which is tied for the sixth best record in the NFL over the last six seasons.
That won't matter on Sunday because Brees and the Saints will get their Super Bowl run off to a winning start. The Falcons, though, will show the football world that last season was just an aberration and are in it for the long haul in the NFC. A few touchdown passes from Brees and turnovers by the Falcons will be the deciding factor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Falcons 24