They're alone in first place, too.
"I was hoping our defense would pull one out, and man, did they ever," Brees said.
Last season, while suspended in connection with the NFL's bounty probe, Payton watched helplessly from afar as the Saints fielded one of the worst defenses ever, yielding a single-season record 7,042 yards. One of his first moves upon reinstatement was to hire Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator.
Payton put the new product on the field right away, electing to kick off when the Saints won the coin toss.
"Sean sent the defense out first, which you would never have seen in the past," Harper said. "So just a whole different feel and the things that we're trying to accomplish, this is just one step in the right direction."
Brees' first touchdown pass went to Marques Colston, who made a diving, 25-yard snag for his 533rd catch, setting a franchise record.
"That's just vintage Marques Colston," Brees said. "I have so much trust and confidence in him. He knows the ball's coming to him and he's going to make that play."
"It was just important to get the first win," Payton said. "You try to compartmentalize each week, each game, and we played a good team. ... We fought hard, especially late."
New Orleans' day got even better when Tampa Bay and Carolina lost, leaving the Saints atop the NFC South.
New Orleans' defense gave up two 50-yard plays, the other on a Harry Douglas reception, but also produced pressure regularly.
The group also produced a momentum-changing turnover when Malcolm Jenkins stripped Jones and Harper recovered, setting up Colston's touchdown, which tied the game at 10 in the second quarter.
Douglas caught four passes for 93 yards, including a 20-yarder to the New Orleans 7 on Atlanta's final drive. But that turned out to be Ryan's last significant completion on a drive which started with connections of 17, 16, 7 and 13 yards.
"I dropped the ball," Jackson said. "It wasn't the easiest catch, but I'm not a person to make excuses."
Then rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped Ryan's fourth down pass for Gonzalez in the end zone and Harper dived to catch it before teammates piled on him. The Superdome crowd erupted.
"The ball was up in the air and I liked my chances, but we were just a fingertip away," Gonzalez said. "So for that, give them credit."
Smith said the drive was executed well "until we got inside the 10-yard line. ... The final play is going to be analyzed 5,000 times in the next three days."
Before kickoff, Payton helped former special teams standout Steve Gleason, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, initiate the Superdome crowd's traditional pregame "Who dat!" chant.
Fans stood and cheered passionately as Payton held up Gleason's arm with his left hand and held up his own right arm, then lowered both to initiate the chant by fans eagerly awaiting a matchup between the past two teams to win the NFC South.
It didn't translate to a good start for the home club, though.
The Falcons struck for the first big play on Douglas' 50-yard catch and run to the New Orleans 10, setting up Ryan's 7-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez.
New Orleans then went up 13-10 on a short field goal set up by rookie Kenny Stills' 67-yard catch, and that score stood until halftime.
Notes: Saints nose tackel Brodrick Bunkley (right leg), defensive end Tyrunn Walker (left leg) and corner back Patrick Robinson (undisclosed leg injury) all left the game. Payton did not provide updates on their conditions. ... Atlanta has lost seven of eight in New Orleans since Payton became coach and also lost a season opener to New Orleans for the first time ever after winning the first six.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press