For the first time in a decade, the Atlanta Falcons have an opportunity to relegate their longtime rivals in New Orleans to early-season irrelevance.
The Saints have enjoyed a decisive edge in this matchup since Sean Payton and Drew Brees joined New Orleans in 2006, particularly in the Superdome, where Brees has a 7-2 record against Atlanta.
Even in 2012, when the Saints were muddling through a non-playoff season overshadowed by the bounty scandal and Payton's related suspension, New Orleans managed to drop the Falcons, who had started 8-0, to their first loss that season.
On Thursday night, Atlanta invades the Superdome with an opportunity to improve to 6-0 under new coach Dan Quinn. If they do, they'll sink the Saints to 1-5, which would be New Orleans' worst start in the Payton-Brees era.
That doesn't sit well with the Saints' all-time passer, who has struggled to maintain his usual standards while confronted with several significant challenges: a bruised rotator cuff in his right (throwing shoulder), and decline in protection, receivers' inability to get open consistently, and an anemic running game.
Brees, who usually projects an air of optimism, said this week that he's "not really happy with the way things are going thus far." Yet he apparently couldn't help himself from adding he intends to make his discontent work in his favor.
"You could say I'm a little bit angry, disappointed, frustrated, chip on the shoulder," Brees said. "I am harnessing that into something positive."
Quinn won't underestimate Brees, or the Saints' offense, which despite its relative struggles ranks seventh in the NFL. But Quinn also has enjoyed success against Brees and Co., beating them twice in 2013 — once in the playoffs — when he was Seattle's defensive coordinator. Back then, the New Orleans offense featured star tight end Jimmy Graham, but Quinn said current Saints, namely running back C.J. Spiller and second-year receiver Brandin Cooks, present challenges as well.
"One of the hardest things about going against the offensive scheme they've had in place is that they have so many unique ways to attack," Quinn said. "It gets to: How do they use the guys to feature them best? That is one of the things that their staff does so well."