The Saints’ coaching staff has been emphasizing one particular stat this week, ahead of the Saints home opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Historically, these two rivals punish each other until literally the final seconds.
“Seven of our last ten games with the Falcons, since Mike Smith has been the head coach, have been decided by the last possession,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Seven out of ten. It just goes to show you what type of battle it always is with these guys.”
And how critical every snap can be.
Wednesday, several key players returned to practice for the Saints, including wide receivers Marques Colston and Nick Toon, as well as outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson. All want to play Sunday and contribute to a contest the Saints hope will start this season on a high note.
“These are always close games, Brees said. “These are always hard fought games. There’s always a lot at stake when we play each other. Week one, but it doesn’t get any better than this.”
“Well, if history repeats itself, it will come down to the fourth quarter,” Atlanta’s head coach Mike Smith said. “It’s going to be the team who takes care of the football. Early in the season, I believe that turnovers are even more critical than any other part of the season. We are going to have to take care of the ball and try to take it away from them, and they’re going to try to do the same thing to us. I think that’s what it will come down to. The team that wins the turnover battle is probably going to win the game.”
Both teams start this season with something to prove. The Falcons won the NFC South last year and advanced to the NFC Championship as the top-seeded team, only to lose and once again watch the Super Bowl from home. Brees predicts the Falcons enter this season ravenous for redemption, yet he promises the Saints possess that same thirst, despite possessing a recent Lombardi Trophy.
“If anything, maybe when you haven’t won one, you’ve got that edge or chip there saying ‘I need to win it,'” Brees explained. “Once you have won it, you sometimes have to manufacture that chip on your shoulder, that edge. You find it however you can, but it’s as difficult or more difficult once you have won one.”
Brees says he has the highest respect for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan both on and off the field.
“He’s a winner. He’s going into his 6th year now and he’s led his team into the playoffs 5 of the last 5 seasons,” Brees said. “He’s got great command of that offense. He’s a great decision maker. He comes off as one of these highly competitive guys: great work ethic, loves football, tough. All the things you want in a quarterback.”
The Saints meanwhile are ready to show the Bounty scandal is behind them.
Plus Brees has a personal score to settle Sunday. The last time these two teams met, in November of last year, Brees had arguably his worst game ever wearing Black and Gold. He threw 5 interceptions and no touchdown strikes, snapping his historic NFL record of 54 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Now, Brees is using that haunting memory as fuel.
“Yes, it was crummy,” Brees said. “It was funny because I watched the film and it’s like, ‘Well, I easily could’ve thrown five touchdowns instead of five picks.’ Everybody might laugh, but I would turn that film on and say ‘Here, here, here, here, and here. Five touchdowns.’ But listen: coulda, shoulda, woulda. You’ve got to have thick skin and you’ve got to be able to go ‘Water off the duck’s back playing this position.’ That one stings. That one will always sting. I can think of about four or five games in my career that I look back on and they still sting me. But that’s also what gives you an edge, and what keeps you motivated.”
One player who might help Brees avenge that performance: wide receiver Robert Meacham, who practiced Wednesday for the first time after re-signing with the Black and Gold.
“He’s familiar with what we want to do, and we feel like he’s someone who can stretch the field,” head coach Sean Payton said. “He does a real good job of making plays above his head. He was a first round draft pick of ours that really helped us for a number of years. You look at his play in ’09, ’10,’11…the key is just getting him up to speed and getting him to a certain spot that he plays.”
Through the 2011 season, before Meachem headed to the San Diego Chargers in what played out to be a disastrous move, he was a proven weapon for the Saints, posting 141 regular season catches for 2,269 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Black and Gold’s first round pick from 2007 also played in six playoff games and had 14 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s all smiles. He’s happy to be back,” Brees said. “Obviously in a familiar place, familiar offense. We spent some time together yesterday, and out here today. Just watching him run around, he looks as good as ever. I look forward to get him incorporated back in.”