NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints' first game back in the Louisiana Superdome in 13 months was seen primarily as an opportunity for this rebuilding city to showcase itself, to reintroduce itself to the world as more than just a community still crippled in many areas by Hurricane Katrina and the great flood but also as one attempting to get back up and running.
The 2-0 record the home team brought to its "Monday Night Football" matchup with division rival Atlanta was a short sidebar to the feel-good story of the Saints finally returning home. Not anymore. The Saints turned their homecoming celebration into a coming-out party and showed the nation that New Orleans doesn't just have its team back but has a pretty good team at that.
Consecutive road wins to start the season against teams that have combined to win one game didn't earn the Saints a lot of respect nationally, but a 23-3 plucking of a Falcons club that spent the first two games running its way into the record books and looked capable of making a Super Bowl run just might do the trick. Of course, it's too early for even die-hards to start talking Saints and Super Bowl XLI simply because they took care of business at home in Super Bowl XL½ (there was a championship game buzz around this one). But New Orleans already has matched its win total of last season and is just one of six clubs leaguewide that can boast a 3-0 record. That speaks for itself. That says rookie coach Sean Payton just might have something here.
And most important, this depressed region finally has something to talk about other than hurricane-related problems. Specifically, a team that looks legitimately capable of causing other contenders problems. The Saints didn't squeak by the Falcons or win on some fluke play or lucky bounce or blown call. They thoroughly outperformed Atlanta. Now they're in first place, already with a two-game lead over preseason favorite Carolina and a three-game lead over defending NFC South champ Tampa Bay. With games the next two weeks at the Panthers and back home for the Bucs, should the Saints somehow manage to win one or both of those ...
Put it this way: Acclaimed director Spike Lee watched the game from the Saints' sideline. Not even he could write a better script than this: New Orleans coming home and delivering, in resounding fashion no less, what many would consider, all things considered, the most significant victory in the team's 39-year history.
"We had to win that football game," Saints receiver Joe Horn said. "If we would have lost, I'm sure [the fans] would have still been proud of us, they would have still been happy because this organization is still in New Orleans. I'm sure in their minds, they would have thought, 'We could have lost the Saints and the Superdome.' With the Superdome being opened, 'Monday Night Football,' and their team coming back -- whether we would have won that game or not, I think the fans would have still been happy. But for us as players, we wanted to win to put that icing on the cake."
Appropriately, the Saints presented the game ball to the city. Dallas Mavericks head coach and native New Orleanian Avery Johnson, who spoke to the team during training camp and even had a locker set aside for him in the locker room, accepted on the city's behalf.
"This night belongs to the city, the state of Louisiana, and everyone in the Gulf South," Payton said.
The game, from start to finish, belonged to the Saints.
Atlanta coach Jim Mora, whose father stands as the most successful coach in Saints history and who coached here, feared before the game that his team might have trouble matching the Saints' intensity. He especially didn't want the Falcons committing a critical error early, giving up a big play, energizing the crowd even more. Sure enough, Steve Gleason broke through and blocked Michael Koenen's punt on the game's fifth play, and Curtis Deloatch recovered to give the Saints a quick lead.
Gleason said the Saints had seen on film that the Falcons experienced a lot of miscommunication on their punt team in their first two games, so the Saints thought they had a good shot at blocking one Monday night. They ran a stunt, Gleason came free and a minute-and-a-half in, the crowd was in a frenzy. The noise reached decibels not heard in this building since Az-Zahir Hakim's muffed punt sealed the franchise's only playoff win six seasons ago.
"I've been here for seven years; I've been through it with these people," said Gleason after his fourth career blocked punt. "For me to do something like that, for me to do that for them, it's unbelievable."
Saints special teams came up big in this special victory. Josh Bullocks blocked a 25-yard Morten Andersen (yeah, that Morten Andersen, the Saints' all-time leading scorer) attempt just inside of 2 minutes remaining in the first half, one of two times the Falcons penetrated the red zone in the first half and came away with zip. John Carney nailed a 51-yard field goal to end the half.
A 20-3 lead is one surefire way to defend the opponent's ground game. Atlanta, the best rushing team in football two years running, came into the game having gained the third-most yards in the first two games of a season in league history. The Saints' plan was simple: try to keep containment on Michael Vick even though sooner or later he'd get his, and be disciplined in their gap assignments. The guy they really wanted to take away was Warrick Dunn, and the cutback lanes just weren't there for the Falcons running back. Because the score forced Atlanta to abandon the run, Dunn was out of the game by the second half, when he logged three of his 13 carries for the night.
The Saints held the Falcons to 117 yards on 23 attempts, many of them Vick scrambles. New Orleans completely shut down Atlanta's version of the option. The Saints harassed Vick into 12-of-31 passing, sacked him five times and made him dance in the pocket a lot. Linebacker Scott Fujita (team-high eight tackles, sack, forced fumble) looked like Derrick Brooks out there.
"You could go the whole season and not see something like you saw tonight," said Payton of his defense's performance against Vick.
Finally, the Saints' offense again showed it has the potential to be dynamic to the point where Reggie Bush kidded Drew Brees after the game that he thought he was back at USC. New Orleans got 81 and 53 rushing yards from Deuce McAllister and Bush, respectively. Seventh-round pick and emerging star Michael Colston caught a game-high seven balls and is growing into a favorite target of Brees'. Horn had a couple of nice grabs. And after Devery Henderson scored the Saints' second touchdown on a reverse called "Superdome Special," where Brees play-fakes to McAllister, then Brees gives to Bush on the end around and finally Bush hands off to Henderson, the Falcons were forced to respect the reverse action with Bush the rest of the game. Bush said three defenders followed him on a fake reverse one play, creating room up the middle for McAllister, and on a pass to Horn, a simple hitch route drew two defensive backs. Bush is so special he affects the game even when he isn't touching the ball.
As for Brees (20-of-28), he just didn't make a mistake.
We shouldn't continue making the mistake of not respecting the Saints. The Superdome looks as though it's back to being a tough place to play, the Saints a tough out.
"By no means are we a finished product," Fujita cautioned.
"This team," McAllister said, "is obviously one that's coming together."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.