An NFL season surely can’t be decided after just one game. But after Sunday’s 23-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints sure look like they’re on their way back to the top of the NFC South.
The Saints erased an early 10-point deficit, and a Roman Harper interception kept the Falcons out of the end zone with 43 seconds left in the game to secure a Week 1 victory over the defending division champions and last year’s 13-3 darlings.
But did we see enough to automatically anoint the Saints with top-dog status in the division?
If you look at two of the biggest changes for the Saints—the return of head coach Sean Payton and the move to a 3-4 defensive scheme—the answer is yes.
Payton being in the building was an instant benefit to the Saints, both from a mental standpoint and through the execution of the game plan. Twitter was set ablaze when Payton and former Saint Steve Gleason led the Superdome crowd in the “Who Dat?” chant. Even the folks in the press box felt the passion of the moment.
With 5:33 to go in the first quarter, Payton reminded everyone he was in the building with a play call. On 4th-and-1 from the Saints’ 47-yard line, Payton kept the offense on the field to go for the first down. The play wasn’t successful, but think back to last season in Week 1. Try to imagine interim head coach Aaron Kromer making that same call.
It wouldn’t have happened.
Payton has the utmost confidence in his team and his quarterback, Drew Brees. Because of their relationship, it was easy for Payton to make that fourth-down call.
On many occasions during the offseason, the value of Payton to the Saints in the form of wins and losses has been discussed. Whether you believe in Payton being worth one, two or maybe even three wins per season or not, believe that Payton being on the sideline running the show Sunday was a huge determining factor in New Orleans being the only 1-0 NFC South team.
The new 3-4 defense led by Rob Ryan was also impressive. Payton announced the big scheme change almost as soon as he got back into the building from suspension. The Saints needed to slow down opposing running backs and get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
There’s still work to do in the running game as Atlanta running back Steven Jackson averaged seven yards per carry on his way to 77 yards on the ground. But Ryan’s new schemes to rush the passer worked brilliantly.
Linebackers David Hawthorne, Parys Haralson and Junior Galette all got sacks on Sunday, but more impressive was the way the front seven punished Atlanta’s offensive line and kept Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in constant duress in the second half.
Success in Week 1 aside, New Orleans still has work to do before the Saints are the team to beat in the division.
The Saints had trouble getting their running game going. Payton wants his offense to have “100-yard games non-stop” running the ball, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune. But the trio of Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram gained just 76 yards and averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
This offense needs to find its bell cow and stick with him. On Sunday, the running back doing the best was Thomas, who gained 43 yards on nine carries. Ingram also carried the ball nine times but only gained 11 yards. Some of Ingram’s carries should likely have gone to Thomas.
Distribution of carries to the running backs will likely be a topic of discussion for some time in New Orleans.
Going from an opening-week win to reclaiming the division crown is a huge step. Especially when you consider that New Orleans beat these Falcons last year once, too. And the Saints were 7-9 then.
Beating the Falcons isn’t the only obstacle in New Orleans’ way. The Saints still must continue to grow on defense and solve a few questions on the offensive side of the ball, too. The Saints also must hope for help from the Falcons.
Atlanta was the best team in the NFC South last season and did a lot in the offseason to get better. On paper, the Falcons are still a better team than the Saints. If Atlanta can solve its offensive line issues and get wide receiver Roddy White healthy, the Falcons could win 11 games at least.
New Orleans can do that, too, but in this case, it may be easier for Atlanta to keep its king-of-the-hill status, metaphorically speaking, than for New Orleans to knock Atlanta off the hill.
The Saints did well in beating the Falcons Sunday. But how much was that result benefited from the supercharged atmosphere in the Superdome? More proof needs to be displayed by the Saints before they’re shoo-ins for the divisional crown.
Without a doubt, this New Orleans team is good enough to win the division and make a deep playoff run. But the Falcons aren’t going to go away, and they are in better shape to keep the NFC South crown in Atlanta.
There should, however, be two spots in the playoffs waiting for the NFC South—one for Atlanta, the other for New Orleans.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.