Countdown to the Saints season opener: Trying to remain the standard in NFC South
METAIRIE – The NFL schedule-makers did their part to try and make the NFC South race especially dramatic this season.
At least where the New Orleans Saints are concerned.
The first three games for the Saints are against their division rivals. They open against the Falcons on Sunday in Atlanta, face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 18 in the Caesars Superdome and play the Carolina Panthers on September 25 in Charlotte.
New Orleans does not play another game against an NFC South rival until December’s Monday Night Football matchup at the Bucs on the 5th before the Falcons come to town in Week 15 and the Panthers visit in Week 18.
The Saints have been the standard-bearer for this division, which is entering its 21st season. They have won seven division titles – including four of the last five – the Panthers have won five and the Buccaneers and Falcons four each.
Last season the Buccaneers finished 13-4 and won the division for the first time since 2007, ending the Saints’ franchise-record streak of four consecutive division titles – which is unmatched in this division.
The Falcons, 7-10 a year ago, last won the division in 2016, and the Panthers, 5-12 a year ago, last won the division in 2015.
Atlanta, which entered the NFL a year before New Orleans in 1966, is the oldest and most intense rival of the Saints.
The two teams met for the first time during the Saints’ first season, and 1968 was the only season in which they haven’t played each other. After meeting once more in 1969, the two teams became NFC West rivals in 1970 and have met twice per season ever since (with one exception), moving into the NFC South in 2002.
The teams met just once in 1987 as one of the meetings was canceled due to a players strike.
The Saints won the first-ever meeting, 27-24, on November 26, 1967 in Tulane Stadium, then the Falcons won nine consecutive meetings to take a commanding lead in the series and New Orleans has never caught up.
But that might be about to change.
The Saints have gone 22-10 against the Falcons since 2006 to improve their all-time record in the series to 52-53. So they can get even in the series for the first time since 1970 if they can win the season opener.
The last time the Saints and the Falcons played a game was against each other in the building where they will meet again Sunday. New Orleans beat Atlanta 30-20 on January 9 in the finale of last season.
A victory in the opener and another in the rematch in Week 15 in the Superdome would give the Saints the edge in the all-time series for the first time since they were 1-0.
As for the other division rivals, the Saints lead the Panthers 28-26 after winning five of the last six meetings. They lead the Buccaneers 39-21 after winning the last seven regular-season meetings. Tampa Bay won a playoff game between the two teams in the 2020 post-season.
This season begins a new era for the Saints as Dennis Allen succeeds Sean Payton as head coach.
New Orleans isn’t the only place in the NFC South where transition is taking place.
The Falcons, beginning their second season under head coach Arthur Smith, have moved on from Matt Ryan, who had been their starting quarterback since 2008. He was traded to Indianapolis in the off-season.
“We expect the rivalry to be just as intense in this next chapter if not more so,” Smith said this week.
The Buccaneers, like the Saints, are transitioning from a coach who led them to a Super Bowl title (Bruce Arians) to his former defensive coordinator – Todd Bowles. Tampa, however, still has Tom Brady as its quarterback as he reversed field on his off-season retirement announcement, choosing not to join Drew Brees in retirement one year after Brees left the Saints.
As for the Panthers, they have the dean of NFC South head coaches as Matt Rhule enters his third season, but they have a new starting quarterback in former Brown Baker Mayfield.
So the 2022 NFL season gets under way amid a series of significant changes in the NFC South.
But until someone else proves otherwise, the Saints are the ones setting the standard for the division.
(Next: Part 8: 10 eye-opening starts to Saints seasons)
Click here for the entire Saints countdown series.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…