FLOWERY BRANCH — The one constant for the New Orleans Saints through their “Bounty Gate” scandal has been the feisty leadership and fine play of quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints lost their first four games of the season, but have won three of their past four and appear capable of climbing out of the third-place hole in the NFC South.
Brees and the Saints (3-5) would love nothing more than to knock off the undefeated Falcons (8-0) when the play at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We know what a challenge it will be,” Brees said. “It always is. These games are really close. It always comes down to a play here or there in the game and down to the wire in the fourth quarter. We know what to expect.”
This will be Brees’ first time facing the Falcons’ defense under the direction of Mike Nolan.
“He’s done a great job in conjunction with (coach) Mike Smith,” Brees said. “I think you see both of their styles in what they are doing. It’s a good blend of both.”
Nolan’s schemes and execution by the players has flustered some of the better quarterbacks in the league this season, including Denver’s Peyton Manning, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick.
Nolan is certain to have some tactical plans ready for Brees, a six-time Pro Bowler.
“Coach Nolan has always got something brewing,” safety William Moore said. “I’m sure he took a deep look at New Orleans a long time ago. We’ll have something special going on this week.”
Nolan considers Brees one of the better quarterbacks in red-zone performance.
“They’re No. 1 in the red zone, and I believe they were in the top 3, if not No. 1, when he was at San Diego,” Nolan said. “It says a lot about who’s pulling the trigger in how you good you are in the red zone.”
Nolan considers Brees to be in a class with Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady.
“He makes everyone around him a better player, which is exactly what guys like Peyton and Tom do,” Nolan said. “They all make everyone around them very good. The stats all support everything he does. They’re No. 1 in a lot of things.”
Brees plans to be ready for Nolan’s attack.
“It’s obviously a good challenge for us even though it’s the same personnel, they are doing some new things that we have to be on top of,” Brees said. “We are studying away to make sure that we are prepared to play.”
The Saints lost their first four games, losing by eight to Washington (40-32), eight to Carolina (35-27) , three to Kansas City (27-24) and by one to Green Bay (28-27).
“We were just trying to find our identity a little bit,” Brees said. “Obviously, the slow start is not what we expected. It’s not what we had hoped for. … (We hoped that) we were going to kind of find ourselves and come together. I think we’ve done that here after over the last four weeks.”
With coach Sean Payton suspended, the Falcons haven’t noticed a major change in the Saints’ play-calling recently.
“Earlier in the year the play-calling may have been a little different,” said linebacker Mike Peterson, who’s set to make his second start for the injured Sean Weatherspoon. “That’s the aspect that Payton brought to that team, to be able to get in a good groove. I don’t think that the play-calling was the thing earlier, but they’ve got on track here lately.”
The Saints are trying to block out the scandal and the name of commissioner Roger Goodell.
“That’s a whole other story,” Brees said. “We’re focused on winning football games.”
Digging out of the slow start will be tough for Brees and the Saints.
“We have a little bit of a mountain to climb here,” Brees said. “We’re focused on the task at hand. We’re certainly not taking anything for granted. We put ourselves in this situation, but that’s OK because we can get ourselves out of it as long as we take that (one game at a time) approach.”