The 2013 Atlanta Falcons couldn't have asked the schedulers in the league office for a more appropriate debut than the one they will make on Sunday in New Orleans against the rival New Orleans Saints.
Since 2008, the outcome in all but three of the 10 matchups between the two teams has been in doubt until late in the fourth quarter or even until the last play on a couple of occasions.
In addition to all of the traditional elements that make this rivalry special, Sunday's game promises its own set of intriguing subplots, including: Sean Payton's return to the New Orleans sideline following his year-long suspension, Rob Ryan's debut as Saints defensive coordinator, Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora playing their first regular season games with the Falcons, and the Mike Smith-led Falcons starting a season without the "can't win a playoff game" monkey on their backs for the first time in quarterback Matt Ryan's tenure.
Even though most of the games in this series have been close in recent years, the Saints have come out on top more than the Falcons primarily because they've made more plays in crunch-time than the Falcons have.
In last year's game at the Superdome, the Saints' defense stopped the Falcons three times from one yard out of the end zone to preserve a 31-27 Saints' upset. New Orleans made a similar defensive stand in 2011 when it stopped Atlanta on a 4th-and-1 in overtime, and in 2010 the Saints offense produced a late drive to steal a win in Atlanta on Monday Night Football.
How can the Falcons change their recent misfortunes against the Saints in tight contest? What should Atlanta's game plan be coming into Sunday's game?
We took what we were able to glean from evaluating the recent games in this series and film study of Rob Ryan's defense in Dallas to develop the outline of a game plan for the Falcons on offense, defense and special teams when they head into enemy turf on Sunday to face the Saints.
As tempting as it may be to execute a methodical, control the clock kind of offense to keep the ball away from Drew Brees and Sean Payton, the reality is that the Falcons have to be the aggressors offensively if they want to leave New Orleans with a win.
That means that Matt Ryan is going to have to take shots down field to test this New Orleans secondary. Atlanta's receivers are almost certainly going to get some opportunities against one-on-one coverage on the outside given Rob Ryan's tendency to blitz.
If Atlanta's offensive line can hold up against Ryan's blitzes, the Falcons should have plenty of chances to take shots down field and let Julio Jones and Roddy White win one-on-one battles like this one.
Now this isn't to say that the Falcons don't need to feed Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers in the ground game, but Atlanta has had real issues scoring touchdowns against the Saints in the red zone in recent years.
Indeed, the Saints' ability to counter Atlanta field goals with touchdowns has been the difference in many of the Falcons' losses to New Orleans. The Falcons can change that by avoiding the drama and getting the ball into the end zone with big plays.
If the Falcons can hit a couple of big plays and force Rob Ryan to dial back his blitzes, Atlanta will be in position to then control the clock with the power run game and exploit mismatches with the Saints' linebackers and Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons can't go with a vanilla defensive scheme if they want to get the best of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. The key here will be to take away the big play from Drew Brees by disguising coverages with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, executing timely blitzes on early downs and forcing the Saints to kick field goals when they make it into the red zone.
The quickest way to fall to the Saints in New Orleans is to allow Drew Brees to hit on a couple of long balls and get the raucous Superdome crowd into even more of a frenzy. That means Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are going to have to keep their depth and depend on their teammates to mitigate most of the damage that happens underneath them in the passing game.
Obviously this is contingent on Atlanta being able stop the Saints' ground game without bringing a safety down to the box.
In order for Atlanta to stop the Saints' running game, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters are going to have to win their matchups against Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs up front. That's easier said than done because Evans and Grubbs are two of the better guards in the NFL.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can keep them busy by strategically using Cliff Matthews, Peria Jerry and Travian Robertson in spurts to keep a fresh body attacking Evans and Grubbs inside.
The Saints have you right where they want you if you can't stop their run game with your front seven. Mike Nolan needs his defensive tackles to win against the Saints talented guards like Travian Robertson did in this play so that the Falcons' safeties can focus on their responsibilities in coverage.
In addition to relying on Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi to get pressure on Drew Brees off of the edges, Mike Nolan is going to need to use a couple of creative blitzes of his own to disrupt the Saints' rhythm.
Drew Brees does a good job of getting rid of the ball when he anticipates any heat, so the key is either disguising the blitz well enough to keep Brees from recognizing it until it's too late, or simply designing and executing a blitz that outflanks the Saints' pass protection.
The latter point is key because if Atlanta has success with those kinds of blitzes the Saints could be forced to keep one of their running backs in pass protection more than they'd like to.
The Falcons defense faces a tall task, but it can make things difficult for the Saints so long as they take away the big play, disguise its coverages/blitzes and force New Orleans to execute the kind of long, methodical drives that end quietly in field goals because the Atlanta defense is able to win one-on-one battles in the red zone.
The theme for Atlanta here is to not unlike the team's theme on defense: prevent the big play.
Darren Sproles is a big play waiting to happen when he gets the ball in hands, and the Saints defense is going to do its best give the dynamic return man plenty of opportunities to take a punt return back to the house. This Falcons' coverage unit figures to be playing some younger players who will be playing a big stage for the first time as well.
Falcons punter Matt Bosher needs to be aware of the role he plays in limiting Sproles and helping Atlanta win the field position battle. A special teams play can often make the difference in a tight divisional contest like this one, particularly in Week 1.
How do you want the Falcons' offense to approach its matchup with the Saints' defense?
The bottom line is that the Falcons must think big on offense and think smartly on defense and special teams. Beyond the points we discussed and the all too familiar keys to any football game (protect the football, win the battles up front), the Falcons must also play disciplined football and avoid the foolish penalties that almost always accompany emotional rivalry games like this one.
If Falcons on all of these points, they'll take the first step towards gaining the upper hand in more than just their rivalry with the Saints.
Unless otherwise noted, all screenshot images are from NFL Game Rewind and all historical references are based on information provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com