Many experts and analysts won’t agree, but the NFL’s best rivalry resides in the southeast. The Falcons and Saints will come together for the 92nd edition of their storied clash this weekend. There will be even more electricity in the air as this match will serve as a de facto elimination game in the race for the NFC South, and a playoff spot.
More than just football, this is a rivalry between two cities. As ESPN writer Tom Tomlinson put it, both Atlanta and New Orleans look at each other as a symbol of the wrong way to live: “New Orleans is Saturday night, Atlanta is Sunday morning. New Orleans is etouffee and a Pimm’s cup, Atlanta is Chick-fil-A and a Coke. In Atlanta, you put a tie around your neck; in New Orleans, it’s Mardi Gras beads. New Orleans is Satchmo. Atlanta is MLK.” These cities are the polar opposite of each of each other, and they represent the two faces of the south.
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Atlanta has distinguished itself as the capital of the southeast after its industrialization in the second half of the 20th century, with the 1996 Olympics solidifying its urbanization. Its always been Atlanta vs. New Orleans for the right to be known as the most important city in the southeast, and that spilled over to the football field in 1967: the first year the New Orleans Saints entered the league (the Falcons joined the NFL just a year earlier in 1966). The Saints won the first meeting, but then the Falcons pulled off nine straight wins right after that.
Noone outside these cities cared about the rivalry at first, because neither team was competitive. It was always a big deal in Atlanta and New Orleans however, no matter how bad the year was, beating the arch rival made it all the more bearable. That was evident in 2012, when the Saints were dealing with the repercussions of bounty gate and had started the season off 0-4. They were 3-5 heading into a week 10 showdown against the last remaining undefeated team in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons (8-0). They won that game in the Superdome, and for that week, they didn’t care about the fact that they were still in a position to miss the playoffs, all that mattered was that they beat Atlanta and halted an undefeated run.
The Saints dominated the latter part of the 80s, winning six straight between 1986-1989 (their longest win streak against Atlanta), while the Falcons won 10 straight in the latter part of the 90s between 1995-1999 (their longest win streak against New Orleans). In 2006, New Orleans took firm control of the rivalry, and have a 13-3 record between 2006-2013. Matt Ryan and Mike Smith had ushered in the greatest era in Atlanta Falcons history in 2008, but one thing they could never do was consistently beat the New Orleans Saints, who ushered in their own greatest ever era under Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Smith and Ryan have a paltry 4-9 record against the Saints, but that includes a week 1 overtime victory this year.
This isn’t a friendly rivalry by any means, it’s one that comes with a level of hate. When former kicker Morten Anderson, who is the all time leading scorer for both the Falcons and Saints and a current Atlanta native, went up to the podium in this previous draft and said Who Dat after announcing the pick for the Saints, he was disowned by the remainder of the Atlanta fanbase that hadn’t already done so after he joined the rivals in the first place. The Atlanta faithful resonated with rage after Drew Brees ran up the score in a week 16 Monday Night Football game so that he could break Dan Marino’s single season passing yards record on national television. A year later, airport workers in Atlanta egged the Saints’ team bus before a week 13 showdown which saw the Falcons break Brees’ record touchdown streak. A couple years ago Atlanta’s star WR Roddy White tweeted out: “I don’t like nothing about the Saints, The colors. The city. Nothing. But they’ve got some good food, though. Other than the food, nothing.”
There is probably no other rivalry that’s ended up being as close as this one in terms of all time record and competitiveness either. Despite this recent dominance by New Orleans, the Falcons lead the all time series, 48-43, including a win in the only playoff meeting between the teams in 1991. 10 of the previous 13 matchups between these teams have ended up being one possession thrillers. Coming into this season, the average score in the all time series was a hair splitingly close 22-21 (the Falcons won, week 1, by a score of 37-34).
The players need no extra motivation for this rivalry game, but when you take into account the division implications, players from both teams will spend some extra time in the weight room this week. The Saints currently sit atop the division with a 6-8 record, the Falcons are third, behind them and the 5-8-1 Panthers, owning a 5-9 record. Both teams control their own destiny however, as the Falcons play the Saints this week and then the Panthers at home next week. If Atlanta finishes tied with New Orleans, they’ll win the division thanks to a superior division record (assuming they win out and the Saints go 1-1).
The loser this weekend will pretty much be eliminated from the division race, assuming the Panthers beat Johnny Manziel and the Browns (which they’ll be favorites to do, but that’s another story), meaning that the 92nd edition of the NFL’s best rivalry will be the biggest one in years.