The New Orleans Saints will host their NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday at noon to open the 2013 regular season.
This will be the seventh time that the Saints and Falcons will square off for the regular season opener.
Although Atlanta leads the series (46-41), the Saints have an 11-3 advantage over the Falcons since 2006 when Sean Payton was hired as coach in New Orleans.
"It's important," said Saints offensive lineman Zach Strief of opening the season against the Falcons. "There is more energy. There is more excitement because it is the first game and then on top of that it is your rival. It's the team that you least like to play. It's the guys that you want to beat the most so it just kind of amps it up a level."
During the 2012 contest in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, wide receiver Marques Colston tied Deuce McAllister for first place on the franchise's all-time touchdown list at 55. Colston is currently tied with Eric Martin for the most career receptions in Saints history at 532, giving him the opportunity to set the record Sunday.
Tight end Jimmy Graham was also named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week with seven receptions for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns following last year's matchup in New Orleans.
The last time the Saints met the Falcons was Nov. 29 in the Georgia Dome where the Falcons defeated the Saints 23-13 and ended Drew Brees' NFL record 54-game streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Despite the loss, New Orleans' defense had one of its most impressive performances of the 2012 season, allowing Atlanta to covert just 1-of-11 third downs while forcing five consecutive three-and-outs at one point.
This offseason, Atlanta looked to improve its rushing attack and acquired running back Steven Jackson as an unrestricted free agent from the St. Louis Rams.
!"I think he's a great player and I think any time you add a great player to your team you get better," Falcons Coach Mike Smith said.
Jackson posted more than 1,000 yards in 2012 for the eighth consecutive season and is eager to showcase his talents in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"Progressively the fans will see more and more of the explosiveness and more of the things you guys have seen over the years from me," Jackson said. "But come New Orleans, that's when you'll get the full package."
While Jackson will play in his first NFC South division game, Saints quarterback Luke McCown has plenty of experience with both teams. He has served as a back-up to Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. McCown spent the 2012 training camp in New Orleans before heading to Atlanta to serve as its backup QB for the 2012 season.
The Falcons come to the Crescent City in 2013 with hopes of defending their NFC South title, but no team has won the division in consecutive years.
However, under Payton's leadership, New Orleans has won six of the last seven games against Atlanta in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the one loss coming in a 27-24 overtime game in 2010.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton also understands the important history between these two teams. He spent his first four seasons in the NFL in black and red, becoming a Saint in 2012.
"I think starting off with Atlanta as the season opener is going to be a tough game because whoever wins this game goes up in the division," Lofton said. "Also, it's two great teams. Atlanta got far into the playoffs last year and we're trying to come back and we're looking forward to playing them."
These two teams have played each other closely in recent memory. In the past 14 contests, eight have been decided by a touchdown or less with two being settled in overtime.
"It's always extremely competitive and it always goes down to the wire," Payton said. "I guess you couldn't ask for a more formidable opponent, especially opening week at our place."