“It gets the trash talk going for the next year,” he said with a smile. “I got a lot of uncles who are still Saints fans, and close family friends, they give it to me all offseason.”
Does he take offense? “Nah, it’s like the culture of ball,” Jones said. “You embrace it. You can’t help but respect it if someone is a die-hard fan. The fact that they’re not switching up shows their loyalty.”
His only recourse: “I got to back it up when it’s time to play.”
It’s time to play. And the Saints are the darlings of many a prognosticator again this year, even if Drew Brees is old enough to be his own national historic site. In Vegas, you could get around 3.5-to-1 on the Falcons winning the NFC South, where the Saints were significantly less than even-money.
Normally, the NFC South is a very turbulent division. Since 2002, there has been only three occasions in which the champion repeated from the year before.
The Saints are trying to join Carolina (2013-15) as the only other franchise to win the division three straight years. That kind of dominance just isn’t normal in this neighborhood.
Even rarer was kind of runaway New Orleans mounted a year ago, when 13 regular-season wins left the Saints six games in front.
“I’m hopeful (last year) is the outlier,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
“Competing in this division now for the fifth year, I have a much stronger appreciation of schemes and players and rivalries that go with that,” Quinn said. “I feel that if it’s not the strongest, it’s certainly in that conversation.
“It will be one hell of a battle. The team that comes out the NFC South this year will have been through some battles and will be really ready to make their mark.”
“We have some really good people in our division, it’s going to be a tough year every year,” center Alex Mack said. “The Saints were really good last year. Two years before that Carolina was great. One year we were really good. It’s always competitive. You never know how it’s going to shake out.”
The Saints mirror the Falcons in terms of certain key offensive personnel – each with gold-plated quarterbacks (Brees and Matt Ryan); compact, multi-purpose running backs (Alvin Kamara and Devonta Freeman); and one wide receiver who just signed a contract setting a new standard for the position (the Saints Michael Thomas, at five years, $100 million) along with another who intends to make even more (Julio Jones).
Saints coach Sean Payton has a few new pieces to fit into his offense. The team signed running back Latavius Murray to soften the loss of Mark Ingram. And it added 32-year-old free agent tight end Jared Cook, who reportedly has been All Training Camp thus far for a team in search of a presence at that position since Jimmy Graham left.
The Saints lost pass rusher Alex Okafor to Kansas City, but second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport (4½ sacks last year) made him more dispensable. Ten-year veteran center Max Unger suddenly retired, living a potential gap in the middle of the offensive line.
For all the moving of furniture, so long as Payton and Brees collaborate, there seems reason to believe the Saints formidable.
The Falcons, of course, put much energy and much draft capital into renewing their offensive line. Quinn assumed the duties of coordinating a defense that was gutted by injuries last year. They also are depending upon a healthy Freeman – a rickety proposition – to fix a run game that ranked 27th in the league in 2018.
The 7-9 Falcons actually had a winning record within their division last season, 4-2. Guess to whom those two games were lost. In the last two years, the Falcons are 1-3 against New Orleans.
Those loses to the Saints fully disclosed the problems that beset the Falcons last year.
At home, they lost 43-37 in overtime because the defense could get not so much as a hot breath on Brees. New Orleans put up 531 yards of offense, nullifying a five-touchdown passing day by Ryan.
In New Orleans, a 31-17 loss, only the fourth time since 2010 one of these rivalry games was decided by more than 10 points, it was the breakdown of the offensive line that was cited as most grievous. There was no running game – the Falcons rushed for a paltry 26 yards. And Ryan was sacked six times and hit 13 times.
No one on the Falcons can or would say out loud that catching the Saints is priority No. 1 this season. Not in the one-game-at-a-time culture of football. Not with 14 other games to account for on the schedule. The Falcons don’t even get to the Saints until the 2019 season is halfway done – both games against them in November.
That message comes from the top: “We have to focus not on what the Saints are doing, what Carolina is doing or what the Bucs are doing. We are going to focus on ourselves,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “I know that if we play to our capabilities on a consistent basis with the kind of passion and the execution, the energy that (Quinn) has asked them to have and they want to put forward, that we will be successful.”
And is echoed in the trenches: “The focus is on us, to just continue to build on what we’re doing,” safety Keanu Neal said.
Still, you overcome the Saints, chances are you not only would vanquish the most disliked rival on the menu but also would be in prime position to return to the playoffs. How this team stands against this single foe is a very handy measure for its overall health. The Saints are the Falcons very own cholesterol count.
Blank enters the season with the appropriately upbeat attitude: “The Saints have a tremendous amount of quality in their players. They’ve got one of the great all-time quarterbacks. They have a great coach who’s got a creative mind and does a lot of good things both offensively and defensively, but mostly offensively. So, we’ll have to be at our best. But I expect that to be the case.”
Not as if the Falcons are shrinking from the obligation of playing the Saints twice. “That’s one thing (Quinn) preaches – anyone, anytime, anyplace, we’ll be ready to go. It will be a good challenge. I’m looking forward to it,” tackle Jake Matthews said.
When back in the Big Easy, Jones heard all this confidence coming the other way, from the opposite fan base. Saints people are feeling very good about themselves. “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” Let the good times roll.
“That’s cool. That’ the start of the season, everyone’s confident. All 32 teams are confident now,” Jones said. “You can’t talk them out of it. You got to go to work.”
For good measure, he added, “They had their year. It’s a new year, somebody else’s year. That’s how this game works.”