By Matthew Asher

This Sunday the Falcons leave the safe confines of the Georgia Dome and head south for their season opener against NFC South rival the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons are looking to quell criticism that last season’s schedule was soft and prove that they can lead the division convincingly. While Saints head coach Sean Payton is looking to take his team back to back to the glory days of 2009.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 09:  Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, calls a play during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 9, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Sean Payton (Credit, Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Head Coaching Troubles

While most teams spend the off season looking for a potential game-changing free agent, the Saints knew exactly who they needed for their team to get back on track: head coach Sean Payton. After serving a one-year suspension for a scandal involving paying “bounties” to players who intentionally hurt opponents, Payton is finally back on the sidelines hoping to steer the team back to a winning record.

The Saints just weren’t the same team without coach Payton last year. Offensively they held their own, finishing in the top three in total yards, passing yards, and scoring. It was the defense that prevented New Orleans from finishing with a winning record, ranking either last or second to last in total yards, passing yards, rushing yards and points allowed.

A Strong Offense In Payton’s Absence

New Orleans finished 2012 averaging 410.9 yards of offense a game, second only to the New England Patriots. The Saints led the NFC in scoring with 28.8 points per game and finished third in the entire NFL behind the Patriots and Denver Broncos.

Drew Brees threw for 5,177 yards; the third time in his career he’s eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark. He finished with 43 touchdowns, the second most in his career, and 19 interceptions for a passer rating of 96.3.

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Jimmy Graham led the team in receptions with 85 and finished with 982 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

Marques Colston only had 83 receptions but led the team with 1,154 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Saints rushing attack was the weak point of the offense. As a team, New Orleans ran for 1,577 yards, averaging just 98.6 yards a game, the eighth least in the NFL. Mark Ingram was responsible for 602 rushing yards with an average of 3.9 yards per attempt and five touchdowns. Pierre Thomas ran for 473 yards, averaging 4.5 yards each run with just one touchdown.

The Achilles Heel 

Even with all the impressive offensive numbers, the defense was the Achilles heel of the team. New Orleans gave up 440.1 yards a game with 147.6 of them coming on the ground. Both stats were the worst in the NFL last year. The 292.6 passing yards and 28.4 points given up each game were the second worst in the entire league. They hope to change their tune with the addition of former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The Saints also had trouble regarding takeaways. New Orleans created only 26 turnovers (11 fumbles, 15 interceptions) while they turned the ball over 32 times (13 fumbles, 19 interceptions).

But with all that in the past, this Week 1 match up should go a long way in deciding which of these two teams will probably finish the season as the NFC South division winner. Last year the teams split the series with each win stopping an impressive streak. New Orleans won the first game in the Superdome ending Atlanta’s eight-game winning streak. In the rematch just three weeks later, Atlanta picked off Brees five times, en route to a 23-13 victory, ending Brees’ NFL record of 54 straight games throwing at least one touchdown pass.

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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on