It might be said again in the next few days, and we definitely have heard it in the past — the Falcons-Saints series is one of the league’s most underappreciated rivalries.
Perhaps it gets the “underrated” billing because it has been so one-sided over the past several years.
The Saints have dominated, winning 11 of their 13 games against the Falcons dating back to the 2006 season, when Sean Payton pointed the Saints in the right direction. The Saints are one of the puzzles that befuddle the Falcons’ Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, who have made consistent winners of a franchise that had never put together back-to-back winning seasons before they showed up in Atlanta.
The Falcons have had five consecutive winning seasons, including the current one, since Smith and Ryan arrived in 2008, but Ryan has a 2-6 record in his eight starts vs. New Orleans — the Saints have been responsible for a little less than a third of the total losses (20) he has endured in the first five seasons of his promising career.
The Falcons have done a tremendous job of defending their home turf with Smith as head coach. Their regular-season record at the Georgia Dome under Smith is a sterling 31-6 — half of those losses came in games against the Saints.
The Falcons have been one of the best at building and keeping leads since Smith took the reins. They are 39-10 in games when they score first since the start of the ’08 season. Yet, with Smith as head coach, the Falcons have a 1-5 record when they score first vs. the Saints.
In this time of unprecedented success for the franchise, beating the Saints and winning in the playoffs have been the tasks the Falcons have struggled with the most. It’s as if the Falcons lose track of their identity when they line up across from the Saints.
It should not surprise anyone that the Falcons’ only loss this season came from that familiar thorn in their side. The Saints, fighting to remain relevant and in the playoff picture after starting the season 0-4, beat the Falcons, 31-27, in Week 10. The Falcons have won their two games since that loss but have not really done much to convince anyone that they are any less beatable since losing at New Orleans. They turned the ball over five times and hung on for a four-point win at home against the poorly quarterbacked Cardinals and rallied to score a one-point win at Tampa Bay in Week 12.
In early November, Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez said that the Falcons don’t get their proper due from the national media. A loss to the Saints and a couple unconvincing performances later, maybe Gonzalez can see why everyone is not singing his team’s praises as loudly as they possibly can.
For Gonzalez and the Falcons, this week is a good chance to get revenge, turn some heads and help league observers make up their minds about whether they deserve to be considered a top contender heading into the final month of the regular season.
The Falcons host the Saints on Thursday night in a nationally televised game. With a win over New Orleans and a loss by the Buccaneers, who travel to Denver to face the Broncos on Sunday, Atlanta will clinch the NFC South title. They also can give the Saints their seventh loss of the season and possibly look back after the season to find themselves as the team that can take credit for officially ending the Saints’ playoff hopes.
The Falcons are in the driver’s seat in the NFC South — barring a total collapse in the final five weeks, they will win the division and still have a good chance of securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC even if they lose to the Saints.
They are not going to get that national recognition with a loss, though. Much worse than that, they will have missed another chance to prove to themselves that they are a different team from the one that has struggled vs. the Saints and faded in the playoffs in past seasons.
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