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Falcons need to step it up in rivalry with Saints

ATLANTA (AP) - Say this about a rivalry: It's not much of one if both teams aren't winning on a regular basis.

The Atlanta Falcons really need to step it up against the New Orleans Saints.

Since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in the Big Easy, the Saints have seized command of their longtime divisional feud with the Falcons.

New Orleans has won 13 of the past 16 meetings between the NFC South teams, including a 12-2 mark with Payton on the sideline (he was suspended for the 2012 season after the Bountygate scandal).

Coming off their first losing season since 2007, the Falcons will be looking to turn things around when they host New Orleans in Sunday's season opener.

"Going out there in that first game, beating a team like New Orleans, it's going to set it up for the rest of the season," Falcons safety William Moore said. "We want to get that sour taste out of our mouths from last season."

Entering the NFL a year apart in the 1960s and within driving distance of each other, it was only natural that Atlanta and New Orleans became the bitterest of rivals.

For many of those seasons, the regional tussle played out in relative anonymity on the national stage, since both franchises had only brief periods of success. In recent years, though, there's been a lot more at stake than just pride.

With Payton as coach, the Saints are 73-39 with two division titles, five playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship. Since Mike Smith took over as Falcons coach in 2008, Atlanta is 60-36 with two division titles and four trips to the playoffs.

Diplomatically trying to explain the Saints' domination, Brees attributed it to the respect his team has for the Falcons.

"There's usually something at stake when we play each other," the quarterback said. "It's going to come down to a few plays here and there. We just hope to be the team that makes them."

Indeed, most games could've gone either way. Nine of the past 12 meetings were decided by eight points or fewer, the average margin in those is a minuscule 4.2 points.

"We're not too worried about what happened four and five years ago," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We're a different team, they're a different team. It comes down to what we're going to do this year."

Here are some things to look for in Sunday's season opener:

BREES' NEW TARGET: The Saints' already prolific passing game, featuring star tight end Jimmy Graham and career leading receiver Marques Colston, has a new option: first-round pick Brandin Cooks. Teammates say he's the fastest player on the team, which showed during training camp as Cooks broke a number of long gains during 11-on-11 drills.

FALCONS O-LINE: All eyes will be on the guys up front for Atlanta. They took much of the blame for last season's 4-12 debacle. Ryan was sacked 44 times - 16 more than his previous career high - and the Falcons ranked last in the league in yards rushing. First-round pick Jake Matthews takes over at the crucial left tackle position after Sam Baker went down with a knee injury during the preseason. Jon Asamoah is the new starter at right guard. They'll have their hands full against the Saints' pass-rushing tandem of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who combined for 24½ sacks last season.

BYRD SWOOPS IN: The Saints' biggest move in free agency was the addition of free safety Jairus Byrd, who'll line up alongside safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints' 2013 first-round pick. Byrd had 22 interceptions during five years with the Buffalo Bills, twice leading the AFC in that category. New Orleans is looking to produce more turnovers, the one thing lacking on a unit that ranked fourth-best in yards allowed last season. "He's one of the best free safeties in the league," Ryan said. "That's a huge addition for them."

JACKSON'S HEALTH: Atlanta must improve its running game to take some of the heat off Ryan. That's where Steven Jackson comes in. A year ago, he struggled with injuries, missed four games and finished with a career-low 543 yards. Jackson didn't play at all in the preseason while nursing a hamstring injury, not a good sign for a 31-year-old back. But the Falcons insist he's healthy and ready to go against the Saints. Look for Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman to get some carries, as well.

RUNNING SAINTS: New Orleans is not known for its ground game, but 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram may be ready for a breakout season. He put together some strong performances late last season and during the preseason, giving the Saints another intriguing option. It's now or never for Ingram, who is entering the final year of his contract and has yet to show he can deliver consistently in the NFL. Second-year back Khiry Robinson and versatile veteran Pierre Thomas are also pushing for playing time.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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