85F Superdome, New Orleans, LA
While the bounty investigation continues to unfold and adjusting to life without suspended coach Sean Payton could take some getting used to, the New Orleans Saints still believe they're primed for another big season given their success over the years.
In one of the more enticing Week 1 matchups, New Orleans and Washington square off Sunday at the Superdome.
Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were banned for the season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and defensive end Will Smith (four games) received suspensions for their roles in New Orleans' bounty system.
However, the suspensions of Vilma and Smith were lifted Friday by a three-member appeals panel and the league reinstated those players.
Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer said Smith, who participated in training camp and the preseason, would be ready to play Sunday.
Vilma, though, has been away from the team before training camp started and has been trying to work his way back from left knee surgery.
"It's huge," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Those are two huge leaders we've got. They're great players. We've got a talented team, but you add Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma , our talent level goes up that much. For our team, it's a break."
The Saints have made the playoffs four times during Payton's six years at the helm, including each of the last three seasons. The 2009 Super Bowl champions went 13-3 last year before beating Detroit 45-28 in the wild-card round and suffering a last-second 36-32 divisional-round loss at San Francisco.
"We've established a culture here that everyone has bought into, and when you've established a culture, no matter who's at the top of it, it's always the same," Jenkins said. "The Saints organization is not about Sean Payton. It's not about Mickey Loomis. It's not about Joe Vitt or a certain person. The New Orleans Saints have a culture in what we do.
"The pressure is on us, at least internally, to have this be a huge year. I think everyone knows the importance of it and how huge of a deal that would be for us to get that Super Bowl."
If last year's effort is any indication, Brees certainly seems capable of leading his team back to the Super Bowl. The six-time Pro Bowler threw a career-high 46 touchdowns and set NFL single-season records with 5,476 passing yards and a 71.2 completion percentage.
"I am excited about our team. I am excited about our opportunity. It's really the focus of one week at a time just trying to get a little bit better each time you step on the field," said Brees, who signed a five-year, $100 million contract during the offseason.
"I couldn't be more excited about where we are at and where we are headed."
For the first time in a long while, Redskins faithful are also expecting big things from their quarterback. After losing 10 of its final 12 games to finish 5-11 last season, Washington traded the No. 6 pick in the draft, two future first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis for a chance to move up and take Griffin second overall.
"He's still a young kid. He still has a lot to learn," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said of the former Baylor standout. "We still have a lot of weapons we need to put around him, too, but we feel like we have adequate guys around him, a lot of playmakers to where we can definitely make that transition a little bit easier for him."
The Redskins signed Pierre Garcon to a five-year, $42.5 million deal and also brought in fellow receiver Josh Morgan. Fred Davis , who finished second on the team with 59 receptions and 796 yards despite missing four games last season, could be in line for an even bigger role following longtime tight end Chris Cooley 's release last week.
While Griffin appeared to develop a good rapport with Garcon during the preseason, who he'll be handing off to is anyone's guess. Coach Mike Shanahan - entering his third season in Washington - has yet to reveal his starting running back, though Evan Royster currently sits atop the depth chart.
Despite the Redskins' recent woes, Griffin appears up to the task of trying to lead his team back to respectability. Since making its most recent playoff appearance in 2007, Washington has gone 23-41 over the last four seasons.
"Last time I checked, they still have us fourth in the NFC East," the reigning Heisman Trophy winner said. "And not that we care, but we're going to go out and try to make sure that we're not."
Washington has gone 15-8 against New Orleans, winning eight of 11 on the road. The Saints took the last matchup 33-30 in overtime Dec. 6, 2009, in the nation's capital.
Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo hopes to play Sunday after aggravating his surgically repaired pectoral muscle during a preseason game Aug. 18.