NEW ORLEANS — NFL schedulers always find a way to send the Atlanta Falcons to the Superdome for landmark games.
In 2006, for the first one played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the visitors were flattened by an emotional freight train.
Now comes Sean Payton’s return from his bounty ban before a fan base that has eagerly awaited the chance to cheer for the club’s only championship-winning coach in a meaningful game.
And by regular-season standards, a game with the Falcons is as meaningful as it gets for the Saints.
“The city is very excited. We’re very excited and it’s going to be a special game,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “I would say definitely it’s one of the most significant games we’ve started with.”
Here are five things to know heading into today’s 88th meeting of these longtime divisional rivals:
FALCON FRUSTRATION: Whether the Falcons have been playoff worthy or not, they haven’t had much luck beating the Saints since 2006, when Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined forces in New Orleans.
The Saints have won 11 of the past 14 meetings, and Atlanta fans don’t need to be reminded where last season’s 13-3 Falcon squad saw its eight-game season-opening winning streak end.
DEFENSIVE TEST: This game marks the first real test for the Saints’ new defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan.
Payton hired Ryan after last season, when New Orleans gave up a league-record 7,042 yards and ranked 31st in points allowed.
YOUNG SECONDARY: Falcons first-round pick Desmond Trufant is set to start at cornerback, while another rookie cornerback, Robert Alford, will see significant action on passing downs. All they have to do is not get fooled by Brees, who threw for league highs of 5,177 yards and 43 TDs last season.
FAMILIAR FACES: The Saints offense has all of its main pieces back. Brees will have running backs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles lining up behind him, Graham at tight end, and veterans Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem at receiver.
PROTECTION QUESTION: While the Falcons have talent galore at skill positions, their offensive line is unproven following the retirement of center Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo in a cost-cutting move.
Clabo’s projected replacement, Mike Johnson, also was lost for the season with a knee injury. Matt Ryan was sacked five times in a preseason game against Tennessee and run-blocking was inconsistent. Lamar Holmes, who played in only one game as a rookie in 2012, is expected to start at right tackle.