Ten years ago — on Sept. 25, 2006 — the Louisiana Superdome was the scene of an iconic moment in NFL history.
A year earlier, Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on one of America's great cities, peeling back the roof of the Superdome, which transformed a shelter of last resort into a palace of pain for thousands of residents who could not flee New Orleans before the storm overpowered poorly designed levees and inundated 200,000 homes.
When the New Orleans Saints returned to the refurbished Superdome for Week 3 of the 2006 NFL season, the stadium's dazzling rebirth and the Saints' 23-3 destruction of the Atlanta Falcons — fueled by New Orleans' special teamer Steve Gleason's blocked punt for a touchdown in the opening minutes — became a metaphor for the city's revival.
The stakes are not nearly as high for the Saints this time, but at 0-2, with losses to the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants coming by a combined total of four points, they could use some serious Superdome mojo against the 1-1 Falcons.
Saints coach Sean Payton, who was on the sidelines for Gleason's blocked point, which nearly blew the roof off the Superdome again, is trying to direct his thoughts to a team desperately in need of a win.
“It's the Atlanta Falcons, it's a division opponent and it's our first division game and we have not won,” Payton said. “It is Monday Night Football, and that's the easy motivation in regards to the significance or importance to the game. A lot of these guys were not around, and, shoot, they may not have been playing football when that happened. It's more about finding a way to get our first win.”
The Saints have three players on their current roster who participated in the 2006 rebirth game — quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans and tackle Zach Strief. The Falcons have only one — defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
But Atlanta coach Dan Quinn realizes the Saints are desperate for a victory and will feed off the home crowd.
“They could just as easily be 2-0,” Quinn said. “We know this a good team. In addition, it's a division game for us. We can't wait to get down there.”
While the Falcons lead the overall series 48-45, Payton has owned Atlanta since taking over in 2006, winning 15 of 20.
The Saints struggled offensively last week in a 16-13 loss to the Giants. Their defense forced three turnovers against New York, but the critical play of the game turned out to be a blocked field goal that the Giants turned into a touchdown for a 10-point turnaround.
Payton was disappointed in his offense's lack of balance. Even though the game was close throughout, Brees threw 46 passes while the Saints ran the ball just 13 times for 3.2 yards a carry.
“I feel like the offensive line has been doing a great job in the run game,” said running back Mark Ingram. “We just have to call them and execute them, give the coaches confidence where we can go out there and be effective in the run game.”
The Falcons are tied for 25th in run defense and have allowed their first two opponents to rush for 4.6 yards a carry.
While the Saints seek to get their running game back on track, they realize Brees is their bread and butter.
“Obviously, you want to get after it in the run game, but when you have a dynamic quarterback like Drew who can just pick people off, then you got to play to your strengths,” Evans said. “And he's definitely a strength.”
The Falcons also have a high-octane offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his first two games — a 31-24 Week 1 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a 35-28 road victory against the Raiders. Ryan leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt (10.0) and passer rating (121.4). He has five touchdowns passes and just one interception.
The Saints will have the crowd buzzing. Gleason, who is battling ALS, will be on hand for the game to whip the Superdome crowd into a frenzy.
“It's probably going to be their Super Bowl,” said Atlanta safety Kemal Ishmael. “I know it's going to be something special for them, and they're going to get after us.”