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SAINTS 23, FALCONS 3

Saints are outstanding in the return game

NEW ORLEANS -- The Superdome got a new roof after Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans Saints did their best to blow it off again.

In an earsplitting return to their rebuilt stadium, the Saints gave the Big Easy something to cheer about -- an undefeated football team that made it look easy with a 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons last night.

This one couldn't have been scripted any better for a team that spent all of last season on the road, and it couldn't have come at a better time for a city that is still struggling to overcome the devastation of Katrina.

``It's just an exciting feeling for everybody in this place, because so many people went through a lot," Saints receiver Joe Horn said. ``We went through a lot as football players, but the fans -- Mississippi, New Orleans, Louisiana -- they went through so much and I'm happy for the fans."

After a pregame show that included a performance by supergroups U2 and Green Day, the Saints wasted no time turning their welcome-home party into Mardi Gras: The Falcons' first drive stalled, and special teams demon Steve Gleason sliced through the middle of the Atlanta line to smother Michael Koenen's punt.

The ball skidded across the goal line, where Curtis Deloatch fell on it for a touchdown -- the first given up by the Falcons this season. Just 1 1/2 minutes into a homecoming that was more than a year in the making, the Saints sent an emphatic message to the NFL and the entire country.

New Orleans is back.

De loatch ran over to the stands and pointed at the crowd of 70,003, as if to say, ``Take that Katrina!" Undoubtedly, many more were cheering around this still-recovering city, some of them vowing to set up televisions outside government-issued trailers that pass for homes more than a year after the storm blew ashore, the levees broke, and the water poured through.

The Saints (3-0) poured it on against the Falcons (2-1), who fell behind, 14-3, in the first quarter and never recovered. Devery Henderson scored New Orleans' second TD on an 11-yard double-reverse, taking a handoff from Reggie Bush and cutting inside the pylon with help from a gutsy block by quarterback Drew Brees.

John Carney kicked two field goals in the second period, including a 51-yarder that cleared the crossbar as time ran out. The Saints trotted to the locker room with a 20-3 lead and a rousing ovation ringing in their ears.

This was intended to be a showcase for New Orleans' rebirth, as frustrating and halting as that process has been for so many.

Fans clad in gold and black strolled around the French Quarter throughout a brilliantly sunny day, ready to look forward instead of looking back at those awful scenes of suffering inside the Superdome in the days after Katrina. Those who had tickets to get inside the 31-year-old stadium found it spruced up with new scoreboards, bright video boards, and plenty of fresh paint, all part of a $185 million renovation that was designed to keep the Saints from moving to San Antonio, Los Angeles, or some other NFL-deprived city.

Showing the significance of the game, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, were both at the Superdome. Signs were hung throughout the stadium, sending messages such as ``Home Sweet Dome" and ``Thank You America. New Orleans & Saints Are Here to Stay."

After Bono left the stage and former President George Bush handled the coin flip, the Saints made sure the party would last all night. They dominated on special teams -- also blocking a short field goal attempt by 46-year-old Morten Andersen -- and shut down Atlanta's feared running game.

``Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" the fans chanted.

Not the Falcons. Not on this night.

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