Rapid Reaction: Saints 23, Falcons 17

NEW ORLEANS -- My thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 23-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons:

What it means: It means New Orleans has the early lead in the NFC South race. The Saints held serve. No team has ever repeated as champion in the division since realignment in 2002, which is what the Falcons are trying to do. The Saints have other ideas, especially now that they have coach Sean Payton back. It’s early, but the advantage goes to New Orleans.

Stock watch, Part I: The Saints' defense looked much, much better. You know the deal with the New Orleans defense. It was historically bad in 2012, which cost Steve Spagnuolo his job as defensive coordinator after just one season. Enter former Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Even with a decimated linebacking corps, the Saints were able to have an aggressive defense that held its own in coverage, and by midway through the first half they were getting pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and his suspect offensive line. The Saints' goal-line stand at the end of the game was the difference between a W and an L.

Stock watch, Part II: Because of a thigh injury to veteran cornerback Asante Samuel, fourth-year cornerback Robert McClain started on the outside opposite rookie Desmond Trufant, the Falcons' first-round draft pick. That meant fellow rookie Robert Alford started as the nickel cornerback (instead of McClain). All three corners were tested early, and Alford had an interception that he basically took away from New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston. The future at cornerback looks bright for the Falcons.

Where was Osi? Former New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora was one of the Falcons' big offseason acquisitions, stepping in for John Abraham as one of the team’s primary pass-rushers. While Smith praised Umenyiora’s leadership and locker room presence, Umenyiora was a nonfactor on the field.

What’s next: The Falcons host the St. Louis Rams at 1 p.m. next Sunday. The Saints travel to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 4:05 p.m. start.