John Bazemore, AP
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith watches play against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- While the NFL schedule maker didn't do the Falcons any favors, the players are ready to march on to New Orleans for their regular-season opener, which comes at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

The Falcons, after going 0-4 in the exhibition season, face the Saints, who'll welcome coach Sean Payton back to the sidelines after he served a season-long suspension for his role in the notorious Bounty Gate scandal.

''The scheduling gods were kind of looking down upon us by giving us a big game coming out of the gate," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But this is going to give us an opportunity to reach that midseason form a lot earlier because we are going to have to come out this first game and be on point."

The Falcons are the defending NFC South champs after going 13-3 last season, when they split games two games with the Saints.

''You know what the environment is going to be like," left tackle Sam Baker said. "You know it's going to be crazy. You know that they are going to be ramped up. We're going to be ramped up."

Baker is fine with opening against the Saints.

''It's good for us to start off in an environment like that," he said. "We get a good test right off the bat."

Under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have made a habit out of losing exhibition games before going on to success in the regular season. Under Smith, the Falcons have never posted a winning record in the exhibition season.

Last season, the Falcons were 1-3 in their exhibitions, but 13-3 in the regular season. In 2011, the Falcons were 0-4, then posted a 10-6 mark and reached the playoffs.

In 2008, '09 and '10, the Falcons were 2-2 in the exhibition season before posting 11, 9 and 13 regular-season victories.

Smith contends that the Falcons play to win in the exhibition season. He also considers keeping players healthy as a main objective and has made a habit of pulling starters for the fourth game.

Smith acknowledged experimenting a great deal in exhibition games. But something happens for the Falcons when they leave the exhibition season behind. Last season, they ripped off eight consecutive wins before losing to the Saints 31-27 in New Orleans on Nov. 11.

''This week, it's 'game on' now," Smith said. "Now, it's time to go."

Smith believes the players easily make that transition to the regular season.

''Our guys understand that," Smith said. "We have a very good understanding of how hard it is to win in the NFL. We have to have everybody focused on the task at hand."

The Falcons have put an extra emphasis on this game.

''We put extra weight on games that are in our division," Smith said. "You've got to handle your division." The Falcons were 3-3 in the division last season, as they split with each team.

Making the transition to the season is easy for some of the veterans.

''The intensity amps up a little bit, and we know that these things count now," DeCoud said. "We can't have too many missteps or too many miscues or have people not on the same page."

Baker and guard Justin Blalock are stepping into the leadership role that center Todd McClure had with the offensive linemen. (McClure retired after 13 seasons with the team.) They'll have to teach the young linemen the ropes.

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''We have our routine together," Baker said. "We all watch tape at the same time. We all hit the cold tub at a certain time. We all do a lot of things together. For the young guys, they just need to fall in line and do what we do because we've been through the season a couple of times."

Baker said it's no mistake that the Falcons have been able to get off to good starts under Smith, even after not winning in the exhibition season.

''Once we get into the season mode, it's about focusing on your opponent," Baker said.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.