The Atlanta Falcons kick off their 2014 regular season on Sunday, welcoming the NFC South-rival New Orleans Saints to the Georgia Dome for the 90th-career meeting between the teams (ATL leading the series 46-43). It was a busy offseason for both clubs, each adding significant talent via the NFL Draft and free-agent signings; while neither club showcased the full potential of its starters in the preseason, the Week 1 matchup will allow fans to see their team's star players at their very best, throughout the entire game.
Top Matchup: Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs Saints QB Drew Brees
Quarterbacks are known for often times being the face of a franchise and for both Ryan and Brees, that's exactly the case. Brees was paramount in helping give New Orleans a Vince Lombardi Trophy, named MVP of Super Bowl XLIV and since then, he's continued to light up scoreboards, something the Falcons D has prepared all week to prevent from happening on Sunday. As for the Falcons' team leader, Ryan has been nothing short of exceptional, owning nearly every significant passing record in Falcons history, including the single season marks for attempts (651), completions (439), completion percentage (68.6), yards (4,719), and touchdowns (32), all of which were set in the last two seasons. Earlier in the week, speaking on a conference call, Brees said that Ryan "belongs in the elite category in this league"; Matty Ice will look to continue proving why on Sunday.
Under the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons WR Devin Hester
It may sound crazy to list Hester as "under the radar," but the star WR even admits that he likes the role, considering the talent and depth of the Falcons receiving corps. "All the attention is going to go to our WRs and hopefully I'll be ducked off on the side somewhere on the other side of the field, where I can hopefully make a couple of plays," Hester said. In four-career games against the Saints, Hester has seven receptions for 128 yards and one score, as well as one punt-return TD.
On the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons WR Julio Jones
You'll be hard-pressed to find a player more excited to be lacing up his cleats on Sunday than Jones, who returns to regular-season action for the first time since suffering a foot injury in Week 5 of the 2013 season. Sunday's game is Jones' fifth-career matchup against the Saints, when he'll be looking to add to his impressive track record against the division rivals: 26 receptions for 336 yards and two TDs.
Number of the Game: 144
Sunday's game will be the 144th-career regular-season game for Falcons RB Steven Jackson. The only active running back in the NFL to record at least 10,000 rushing yards and 3,500 receiving yards, Jackson worked tirelessly in the preseason to recover from a hamstring injury and now is excited to show that persistence truly does pay off.
Three Keys to Victory:
1. Keep Matt Ryan Clean: In both games against the Saints in 2013, Ryan was sacked a total of eight times, including five takedowns in the Georgia Dome, during the Week 12 matchup. Armed with tons of talent on offense, when given the time, Ryan will make the most of every one of his opportunities on Sunday.
2. Denying Jimmy Graham's Big-Play Ability: Falcons head coach Mike Smith cited Saints TE Jimmy Graham as one of the keys to a high-octane New Orleans offense; in eight-career games against the Falcons, Graham has been targeted 55 times, logging 35 receptions for 500 yards (14.3 avg.) and seven TDs. The Falcons D knows that Graham will make plays, but preventing the huge gains will be paramount to success in Week 1.
3. Special Teams Discipline: All preseason long, Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has emphasized to his group to "do your job," which comes full circle Sunday. Saints rookie WR Brandin Cooks is blazing fast, with playmaking ability on every return; playing disciplined football will be vital to keep the Saints from scoring on special teams and from winning the field-position battle in Week 1.