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Saints Fans: Why the Falcons? A look back at the rivalry’s origins.

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There are 31 other franchises in the NFL. Why is it that the Atlanta Falcons are our number one rival and most hated enemy?

There are a few answers to that. We must first look at our histories, not just of the Saints and the Falcons, but of the cities.

New Orleans is truly the first city of the South.  Its position on the mouth of the Mississippi has made it not only a tremendous port city but an international gateway. Its a gumbo pot of culture.  New Orleans’ position in the development not only of the South but also of the United States is well documented in history.  Atlanta is—for lack of a better term—a “Northern” southern city.  It has invited and courted growth over the years and the city now boasts a tremendously vibrant and diverse economy.  It’s a big city, where New Orleans is a big town.

But make no mistake, where the true South is concerned, these are arguably the most important cities in the Deep South.  Atlanta has spread out over many miles. Its metropolitan footprint now is seemingly the entirety of the northern part of Georgia.  New Orleans is an island, surrounded by water on every side, so growth has always been limited.  But—and I hope I don’t get reprimanded by my local brethren for saying this—New Orleans hasn’t always been as kind to outsiders as Atlanta has.

Historically, New Orleans loves itself, and STILL TODAY isn’t as interested in what the rest of the country or world is doing, thank you very much.

We are better about that today; we have progressed.  But we still hold tightly to what has made us unique.  That’s a beauty, a blessing, and a curse…  Atlanta has eagerly opened its doors to whoever wanted to walk in.  It’s a transient city. A sizable number of the population isn’t actually from there. They moved there because that’s where the work was.  We contributed to that number—back in the 1980’s when the oil bust hit here, more than a couple of New Orleanians relocated to Atlanta to help build their city.  So, the point here is: while we are both cities in the South, the similarities stop there.

Our two franchises began a year apart.  The Saints and Falcons first played each other in 1967, the Saints inaugural year. The Saints won that contest.  Over the decades since, there have been many great matchups between the two teams, and merely 5 games separate the two in the win/loss column in 95 meetings. Atlanta leads 50-45.

The Saints have been more dominant recently. They holding a 15-6 edge in the last 21 meetings over the last 10 seasons plus the one meeting this year.  But the Saints have never won more than 6 consecutive meetings between the two teams.  Atlanta has had streaks of 9 and 10 wins against the Black and Gold.

But these things don’t necessarily define a rivalry.  They are the end result of a rivalry, maybe, but they don’t create it…

December 21, 2014: A New Orleans Saints fan holds up a sign at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Peter Forest/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
Photo by Peter Forest/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images) /

The rivalry likely began when these two teams, both in the South and, if we’re being honest about our geography, more easterly part of the United States (both East of the Mississippi River) were so “graciously” (note: tongue inserted in cheek here) placed in the NFC West with the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers.  If it wasn’t bad enough that these two franchises were only 3 and 4 years into their existence, they now get placed in a division with a Rams team that had been an established power and a San Francisco team that was emerging.

Our two teams weren’t on that level.  So, the Saints and Falcons simply beat each other up.   They weren’t truly competitive with the California teams—nor many other teams in the NFL at that juncture. So they developed their own personal rivalry, borne out of proximity and necessity.  The games have rarely been meaningful to either team in terms of playoffs or positioning.  Mostly it’s a pride thing, and that’s really where rivalries are born.   As the league changed and both teams moved to the NFC South, the rivalry continued and thrived.

More occurred over the years to increase the disdain between the two teams.

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At one point, there was a change in the way tickets were given out. There were fewer tickets available for Saints fans to go to Atlanta.  This change occurred either at the time of the building of the Georgia Dome or shortly after the Falcons went to the Super Bowl.  One of the great parts of the rivalry was the bus trip from New Orleans to Atlanta, and vice-versa, to attend games.  It was part of the “cultural exchange”.  That doesn’t happen in the same numbers anymore.  Around the same time that tickets were more scarce for Saints fans, the same thing happened here for Falcons fans. Bus trip numbers dropped.

There has always been the good-spirited trash talking between fans of each squad.  Whether your side was winning or losing, you always wanted to put up a good verbal fight.  In the stadium, outside tailgating, in a “social” establishment, possibly with a cold beverage in hand. The spirits flowed and the spirit was high, but never angry or abusive.  That has changed a bit also.  Whether the spirits are flowing or not, the language has become a bit more raw emotionally.  There is a palpable move from attached fandom to rabid jerk-dom.  And it’s on both sides—Saints fans aren’t innocent in this either.  We are known for being devil-may-care, laissez les bon temps roulez, come on over here to my tailgate and have some jambalaya after the game win or lose kind of people—until we play the Falcons.  Dirty birds can’t have any jambalaya…

New Orleans Saints Moments vs. Atlanta Falcons
Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

On the field, of course you have to have defining events, and of course there are plenty.

There are the obvious things, such as Morten Andersen and Bobby Hebert, two of the most beloved Saints of all time, ending up with the Falcons during their careers (there were others that went one way or the other, but none as high profile as those two. Particularly because they were still in prime years of their careers). There was the 1978 season, with the two last minute wins directed by Steve Bartkowski. The 1991 playoff game (the only time the two teams have met in the playoffs) saw New Orleans native Michael Haynes score a late TD on a pass from Chris Miller to earn the Falcons a road win.

But in more recent years, the rivalry has featured us getting the better side of the deal.  “Rebirth” will live on as one of the top 3-5 moment in the history of the franchise – of course that’s the return to the Superdome in 2006 after Katrina, on Monday Night Football with the world watching.  Steve Gleason’s blocked punt and Curtis DeLoatch’s recovery for a TD just a couple of minutes into the game sent the Superdome into a frenzy unlike anything before it.

And one of the most satisfying wins in the rivalry came during the Black and Gold’s Super Bowl season.  In their second meeting of the season (and again on a Monday night game), with the Saints sitting at 12-0, the Falcons looked to derail the perfect season.  Atlanta jumped out to an early lead, but the Saints roared back and took over.  Atlanta rallied back though and looked to be in position to tie the game to take it to OT when Darren Sharper intercepted a Matt Ryan pass at the 5-yard line to seal that game for the Saints.

Next: Everyone wants to beat the Falcons, but this time will be tough.

The Saints and Falcons may not have one of the most important rivalries in the NFL in terms of what it means to the playoffs, but there are few that match it for intensity.

Falcons fans won’t show up all the time – if their team isn’t good they won’t be there.  Like many other big cities, there are other things to do.  Saints fans are die-hards; win or lose, they will be there because the Saints represent the community that is New Orleans.  But records can go out the window and caution can be thrown to the wind when they get together to play each other.  In this final matchup for the two in this 2016 season, let’s hope we get all the same raw energy and emotion this series has become known for.

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