Falcons Descend on Saints: Atlanta, New Orleans Matchup

A year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Saints will return to the place where they belong. And the moment of triumph will be staged on Monday night.

In a game that has captured the attention of media, fans and observers on an international level, the Saints will host the Atlanta Falcons in a battle for first place in the NFC South.

The Saints have taken a leadership role in the healing of the entire region, following the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to the Louisiana Superdome. The Monday game has now become a symbol of the region's resolve and determination after a massive rebuilding project.

The Saints were forced to move their home games last season and played four at Louisiana State University and three in San Antonio. One other "home" game was played at Giants Stadium.

But the franchise made a commitment to participate in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region and the fans showed their appreciation by selling out each home game. Now Saints officials are making plans for a waiting list.

"We're now competing on that basis with places like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other major cities," Saints owner Tom Benson said. "This is just tremendous. People can't believe what people in this whole area have done."

Benson also called on all Saints fans to wear black and gold on Monday as a show of solidarity. And the fans can also celebrate the Superdome debut of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush, who has lined up in the backfield and as a receiver and also returns punts for the Saints.

In the season-opening 19-14 win at Cleveland, Bush rushed for 61 yards on 14 carries, caught eight passes for 58 yards and returned three punts for 22 yards.

The Saints then won their second straight road game to start a season for the first time in franchise history, beating Green Bay, 34-27, last week. Bush caught eight passes for 68 yards, rushed for just five yards on six carries and returned four punts for 36 yards.

Along with selecting Bush with the second overall pick in the draft, the Saints also signed quarterback Drew Brees to a six-year contract worth $60 million. Brees threw for 353 yards and two touchdowns in the win at Green Bay.

However, beating Michael Vick and the Falcons will be difficult. Vick is 5-0 as a starter in his career against the Saints.

The NFL's fastest quarterback ran for two touchdowns and passed for 231 yards and a score in the Falcons' 36-17 victory over the Saints on a Monday night at the Georgia Dome last December 12.

Vick threw for just 112 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 51 yards as the Falcons edged the Saints, 34-31, last October 16 at the Alamodome. Warrick Dunn rushed for 100 yards, including a 21-yard TD.

The ground game and an improved defense has been the key to Atlanta's 2-0 start.

The Falcons rushed for 252 yards and recorded four sacks in a 20-6 win at Carolina in their season opener. Last week, they rushed for a franchise-record 306 yards in a 14-3 victory over Tampa Bay. Dunn rushed for 134 yards and Vick ran for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall led the defensive effort last week with two interceptions. Atlanta has yet to allow a touchdown this season and has forced five turnovers.

But if there is a weakness with the Falcons it is in the kicking game. Michael Koenen, the first player to simultaneously handle kickoff, field goal and punting duties since Frank Corral of the Los Angeles Rams in 1981, missed field-goal attempts from 30, 36 and 40 yards and had a 30-yarder blocked in the win over Tampa Bay.

The Falcons hope defensive end John Abraham will return on Monday. Acquired from the New York Jets in the offseason, Abraham had two sacks and two forced fumbles in the season opener, but missed last week's game with a groin injury.

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