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The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints finally get together Sunday for the first of their biannual bile-letting, minus a key element. There's a huge hole where one pesky, old-foe quarterback should be.

A Falcons-Saints game without New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is a big incompletion before the first pass is thrown Sunday. The day will be missing one half of the most reliable quarterback duel of our time. It's Wyatt Earp showing up at the O.K. Corral with Ike Clanton out with carpal tunnel in his shooting hand.

Brees got hit so hard Sunday in New Orleans that Matt Ryan felt it back home in Atlanta.

"You hate seeing it," the Falcons quarterback said. "I was watching the game at home and saw the hit and by his reaction getting up -- we've all kind of been there -- you kind of know through body language when something's not right.

"I didn't know to what extent it was until I saw Monday what he was going through. I've always known he's so tough. That was a tough thing to see. Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung. I just hope he's doing OK, those things heal up and he's able to play at some point this year."

Given their longevity, durability and intra-divisional relationship, Ryan and Brees have faced each other more than any other two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. They've met 23 times, which is more than Dan Marino-Jim Kelly (18) or even Tom Brady-Peyton Manning (17).

For those keeping score at home, Brees is 14-9 as the pitcher of record against Ryan's Falcons. Their stats almost mirror when all these meetings are added up. Brees holds a small lead in passing yards (7,085-6,848) and completion percentage (67.8-65.5). They both have 43 passing touchdowns. Ryan has thrown fewer interceptions (16 to 25 for Brees).

Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill -- a goofball and a gadget -- will be pretty generic replacements for the Saints' real thing. And while the Falcons might be able to turn that to their advantage -- although no promises here -- there will still be a little hollowness to Sunday.

"I'll miss competing against him because if you win against them and he's playing, you know you've done a good job and earned it," Ryan said.

This injury to Brees might well be the tipping point for the 41-year-old Brees. He was weighing retirement this season. That was before having his innards rearranged and deflated. There's no more powerful signal that there's an easier life awaiting someone who's made nearly $270 million in his first career.

Ryan is six years younger and fully intends to keep playing until his body parts start rebelling, too.

It's going to happen, as surely as it has to tough-guy Brees. But for now, it is good to be reminded of one of the real trademarks of Ryan's career -- that you can take it for granted he's going to play. Write him in every week in indelible ink.

An ankle injury that cost him one game last season broke Ryan's streak of 154 consecutive starts that dated a decade, a remarkable bit of beating the odds.

As a team PR man was knocking on wood just out of sight of the streaming news conference Wednesday, Ryan explained just how much such dependability means to him:

"I'm very proud of the fact that in the better part of 13 years I've only missed three games. Hopefully I'm able to keep doing that as we move forward.

"I work hard to try to take care of my body. I have a good idea what works for me at this point of my career. I feel like it's always important to try to understand pass protection, get the ball out, know where your outlets are. You also have to be lucky. I don't discredit that. I've been fortunate in my career to avoid some hits that could have gone differently. I really do feel fortunate."

Highlight and underscore that last benefit. Fortune truly has held his hand.

Meanwhile, football caught up to his old rival, and it really left a mark.

Ryan said that as of Wednesday afternoon he hadn't reached out to Brees. He felt a twinge of regret about that. A nice card and an arrangement of fall flowers, at least, is not too much to ask after all they've been through.

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