Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY Sports
ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter
The New Orleans Saints can finally start preparing for a game that counts — and it’s a doozy. Week 1, on the road, against the division rival Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints will have more time to prepare for this matchup than almost any other opponent this season, with a bonus practice scheduled for Monday. But it’s not like they need it from a scouting standpoint. They certainly don’t need it from a motivational standpoint.
These teams know each other backwards and forwards, having battled for NFC South supremacy for the past six years, with mostly the same coaches, core players and systems in place.
The Saints are eager to mix it up with the division rival Saints in the regular-season opener.
Saints safety Rafael Bush, who almost joined the Falcons this offseason as a restricted free agent, came up with the perfect analogy on Friday.
“We play against these guys so much that it’s like playing your little brother or your big brother,” said Bush, who is friends with Falcons safety William Moore, among others. “You know each other very well, so it comes down to who’s the most detailed team and who makes less mistakes. And that’s pretty much been the outcome of these games. You now last year [the Saints’ win in Week 1], it could have been a tip away from losing that game. So it comes down to those small things.”
And like any good brotherly rivalry, Bush couldn’t resist throwing in some trash talk when asked whom he sees as the big brother in this scenario.
“We’re definitely the big brother,” Bush said. “I mean, we won twice last year. If you go against the overall record, I think the Saints are pretty much winning in that matchup.
“So they’re the little brothers, and we’re going to go in their house and we’re going to spank them like they’re our little brothers.”
Indeed, the Saints have won a whopping 13 of 16 against the Falcons since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. However, players and coaches are always quick to point out how close these games always are.
Seven of the last 11 games have been decided by four points or less. Nine of them by eight points or less. Last year, the Saints won 23-17 at home in Week 1, thanks to Kenny Vaccaro’s pass breakup in the end zone in the final minute. Then the Saints squeaked out a 17-13 win in the Georgia Dome in Week 12.
“When we play Atlanta, it oftentimes comes down to the final drive. It did in last year’s games, and I’m sure it will on Sunday,” Payton said. “So it comes down to that one specific play you need in short yardage, or that one defensive stand or offensive opportunity. You just don’t know when that’s going to be.”
Atlanta had a down year last season, finishing 4-12 thanks in large part to injuries. So a win for the Falcons could help them quickly start fresh in 2014 — much like the Saints’ Week 1 victory over Atlanta did for them last year.
Payton laughed at the idea that the Saints want to avoid “letting Atlanta back in the race” since the race hasn’t even begun yet. But he said it’s obvious that they want to get off to a fast start.
And running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints know full well that Atlanta has the potential to make a drastic turnaround from last season.
“We know what they’re capable of doing. We know how big of a game it is, just like they know how big of a game it is. We know we’re going to get their A game,” Thomas said. “They give it to us every year and every time we play them. We know this is not going to be an easy game. This is going to be a tough, hard-fought game. These guys are going to be really fired up, the opener of the season, and we’re going to their Dome.
“We’ve got to be on our toes and well prepared for this team. Because it’s a whole new year, a whole new team. They’re going to be excited to get going.”
But all of that being said, as fiery Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette pointed out, the Saints are so amped to get this season rolling, the opponent is really an afterthought.
“It doesn’t matter if it was the Charlotte Bobcats,” Galette said. “Whoever’s on the field.”