METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Linebacker Curtis Lofton left Atlanta just in time to miss out on the Falcons' best start to a season in franchise history.
Now a defensive leader for the struggling Saints, Lofton insists he has no regrets, did what was right for him and is eager to experience one of the NFL's more intense and longstanding rivalries from the other side when the Saints (3-5) host unbeaten Atlanta (8-0) on Sunday.
"Yeah, I'm excited to play these guys after playing for them," Lofton said this week. "It's ifs, ands, woulda, coulda - now we'll see what happens."
It can be difficult to read in the loquacious Lofton's playful grin whether he harbors any real resentment about his departure from Atlanta. On one hand, he says it's nothing personal, but sometimes he'll throw in a few extra comments insinuating that he felt somewhat underappreciated.
"I look at it as I left. I mean, they offered me and they wanted me to stay, but I just felt better" moving to New Orleans, Lofton said. "I wanted to go to a team that celebrated me, not tolerated me. That's the way that I felt. I'm happy that I'm here and I'm excited for this game."
Lofton signed a five-year, $27.5 million free-agent deal with the Saints last spring, and the timing seemed ominous for incumbent starting middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Vilma not only had undergone offseason knee surgery but also had been implicated in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints.
When training camp began, Vilma's since-vacated season-long suspension was in effect, and Lofton immediately assumed the starting middle linebacker role which he continues to hold even as Vilma has worked his way back onto the field.
Vilma has played mostly spot duty at outside linebacker since returning in Week 7 against Tampa Bay. He acknowledges that it's a little odd to see someone else owning his position, relaying play calls from the defensive coordinator as he once did, but said he likes working with Lofton.
"When we're out there together - you saw it the last game - I made some plays, he made some plays. Hopefully we make plays together, it doesn't matter," Vilma said. "Sometimes he'll see things I don't see. Sometimes I see things he doesn't see. ... We can almost communicate simultaneously. I can communicate to the back end while he's talking to the (defensive) line or vice versa, so it's actually been really good."
Lofton leads the club with 76 tackles, including four tackles for losses and one sack. He also has a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Falcons coach Mike Smith referred to Lofton as a "tackling machine" who he would have liked to keep if not for a free agency system that inevitably causes teams to lose good players now and then.
"Curtis was an integral part to our success in our first four years here," Smith said. "The way that the league is set up, with free agency and everything, you'd like to be able to sign all of your players back, but it's just not possible. Curtis had been a leader for us and had done a very good job. Unfortunately, the way that the league is set up, guys are going to change teams. I miss Curtis."
Some of Lofton's old teammates seem to miss him, too, even if they opt for a tongue-and-cheek way of expressing it.
"I've talked to Curtis a couple of times," said Falcons receiver Roddy White, who worked out some with Lofton last offseason. "I told him I'd be looking for him. Tell him when I come over the middle, I'm going to be looking for him. I hope he gets the message."
Falcons running back Michael Turner added: "It's going to be weird, especially to see him wearing those colors. I'm pretty sure he's going to be juiced up for this game. I look forward to playing him."
While Lofton stresses that his decision to play for New Orleans was more professional than personal, he said he understands why Falcons fans, and maybe even some former teammates, see him as a turncoat. And he doesn't seem all that concerned with trying to change their minds.
"When I was with the Falcons, I hated the Saints. Now I'm with the Saints, I hate the Falcons," Lofton said. "Both of these cities hate each other and there's no love lost. So, it's a divisional game and we'll get it on. That makes it fun."
Notes: Saints assistant he coach Joe Vitt said RB Darren Sproles (lef hand), WR-KR Courtney Roby (left shoulder), DE Junior Galette (left ankle) and RT Zach Strief (left groin), who all have missed practice this week, will not play Sunday. ... Vitt said Strief spent part of the week seeing a specialist in Philadelphia for his injury.
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report from Flowery Branch, Ga.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL