What happens when you cross the fervent, seething passion of college football with the relentless multi-state geographic reach of the NFL? You get the down-south family brawl that is the Atlanta Falcons–New Orleans Saints rivalry. The two teams meet Thursday for their first-ever Thanksgiving matchup, and when they do, the nation will get an up-close look at the best rivalry in the NFL.
Yeah, we see you, Bears-Packers. We know you’re trying, Raiders-Broncos. We applaud the effort, Cowboys-Redskins. But if your idea of a pro football rivalry is a bunch of guys in scarves and gloves bellowing at each other over tiny grills, or a crew of face-painted cosplayers with the tags still visible on their Spirit Halloween store costumes, it’s time for some education. Where most NFL rivalries have all the passion of a corporate scuffle – do you really have a stake in Coke vs. Pepsi or Apple vs. Google? – Falcons-Saints is pure, visceral, sweaty hatred, hotter than Tabasco in July, rage and jealousy and more rage, all set to a funky, thundering backbeat.
“The vibe you get in both of those cities is, ‘This is special, this is exciting,’ ” says Aaron Brooks, who quarterbacked the Saints in the early 2000s. “When you walk into either one of those domes, it’s like, you’re ready to get down and go all out.”
“If you grow up in the Deep South, you have the Southeastern Conference, the strongest conference in college football. You have high school football, Friday Night Lights. Football’s a priority,” says Bobby Hebert, the Louisiana native who played quarterback for both teams. “Between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons is that college football [kind of] rivalry.”
You can’t measure this rivalry by rings; the two teams have just three Super Bowl appearances and one championship between them. No, you measure this rivalry the way you do blood feuds: by rage, passion and plain old spite. Atlantans see New Orleans as a hot-sauce-drenched gumbo backwater; New Orleanians see Atlanta as a try-hard overgrown suburb. Neither stereotype’s anywhere close to reality, of course, but both contain enough salty grains of truth to sting.
“When it’s real, records don’t matter,” says former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson. “It’s never easy. They’re trying to ruin your season, and you’re trying to ruin theirs.”
You judge this rivalry not just by the joy one team gets at beating the other, but the exultation that one fanbase feels when the other falls on its face. There’s respect here, but goodwill? That’s for Sunday morning, not Sunday afternoon.
“When I went into church yesterday, I put my phone on Falcons mode: no ring.”
-Rich G., Saints fan
Coming into Thursday night’s game, the 99th in the half-century-long series, Atlanta leads the series 52-47, including a win in the lone postseason matchup between the two teams. That total includes seven overtime games, a 62-7 blowout (Atlanta, 1973), a 38-0 whupping (New Orleans, 1987), 12 division championships, three Super Bowl appearances, and approximately 4.5 million bottles of alcohol consumed.
“It’s the biggest rivalry in the NFL,” says Brooks. “Both teams go for each other’s throats. When we come to town, they know what time it is. And same thing when they came to us.”
As of today, the total points in the feud? Falcons 2,210, Saints 2,088. That’s a mere 122-point differential over the course of nearly 100 games (and the way the Saints are playing now, Drew Brees could probably make up that difference in the first half of Thursday’s game).
They’ve both got gargantuan stadiums with the same top-shelf sponsor – the Mercedes-Benz Superdome remains one of the iconic sporting destinations in America, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was built with the express purpose of luring in world-level events like the upcoming Super Bowl LII.
Plus, winning helps the rivalry’s brand. These aren’t podunk teams scrabbling over the third spot in the old NFC West anymore. Over the past decade, only two postseasons haven’t had at least one of the teams in it. Two teams long known for their bumbling ownership and single-figure win totals at last have stability and – wonder of wonders – winning traditions.
Since Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in 2008, the Falcons have reached the postseason six times in 10 full seasons. Since Brees first suited up for New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have reached the postseason six times in 12 full seasons, with another all but certain this year.
That’s where we are now. Here’s how it all began.
“We survived Hurricane Katrina. You can’t handle our Brees.”
-Saints fan sign, 2012
It’s a seven-hour drive from Atlanta to New Orleans – Interstate 85 to Montgomery, Interstate 65 to the Alabama coast, Interstate 10 through Biloxi and right on into the French Quarter. If you were of a mind to do so, you could leave Thursday morning, get lit up with some mimosas, grab a nap for a couple hours as you roll through south Alabama, then wake up and get nice and re-lubricated as you’re rolling across Lake Pontchartrain just in time for kickoff.
You’d be following the same route Falcons and Saints fans have traveled for decades, in caravans often tens of thousands strong. The teams came into the league at almost the exact same moment, the Falcons in 1966, the Saints a year later. Both of them served as outposts in a region of the country overlooked or disregarded by the other pro leagues; baseball’s Braves, the region’s first pro team, only started playing in Atlanta a few months before the Falcons.
The Falcons and Saints first played on Nov. 26, 1967, and if you’re looking for metaphor, you’ll find it right from the start. The Saints, in their first season, were 2-9. The Falcons, in their second, were 1-9-1. The game featured guys with long-ago names like Perry Lee Dunn, Gary Cuozzo, Ernie Wheelwright and Junior Coffey. Competitive down to the end of the fourth quarter, the game ended in a narrow 27-24 victory for New Orleans.
Oh, and in that game? The Falcons blew a 21-3 lead. Yeah, some things never change.
The two teams were moved into the NFC West – yes, “West” – in 1970 after the NFL-AFL merger, along with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. And from there, the Falcons – who didn’t post consecutive winning seasons until 2008-2009 – and the Saints – whose fans all too often showed up in “Aints” paper bags – battled not for division wins, but just to stay out of the cellar. During that era, the 49ers and Rams combined for 34 playoff appearances, 25 NFC West titles, and six Super Bowl victories. The Falcons and the Saints just tried to keep from injuring themselves running onto the field.
“It seemed like we were playing each other all the time,” recalls Buddy Curry, a linebacker for the Falcons in the 1980s. “I remember one game lining up against Archie Manning, he looks across the line and says, ‘Curry, you’re still here?’ And he’d been playing even longer than I had!”
In the olden days, the Falcons shared a field – the long-gone modernist flying saucer that was Atlanta-Fulton County stadium – with the Braves, and that meant the Falcons were playing half their games on infield dirt.
“You’d come in from playing, and you’d be covered in dirt and grass stains. You’d be picking pebbles out of your calf muscles,” Curry recalls. “And then you’d go to New Orleans, and you’d be playing in air conditioning, but you’d be playing on that hard carpet.”
That would be the carpet of the Superdome, opened in 1975 after the Saints spent seven years in Tulane Stadium. The Saints rolled out huge swatches of Monsanto carpet dubbed “Mardi Grass” right atop the Superdome’s concrete floor. As with most first-generation artificial turf, injuries abounded … and woe to the poor Falcons who’d get injured on that hard grass.
“Oh, you’d hear everything from those stands,” recalls Steve Bartkowski, the Falcons’ marquee quarterback of the 1970s and ’80s. “In my second year, my fifth game, somebody grabbed my facemask and somebody else twisted my knee. I ended up having one of the nine knee operations I’d have in my career. And as I’m leaving the field, I’m hearing the most dirty, nasty things …”
“What kind of petty team puts up a statue for a blocked punt? As classless as the city they come from.”
-Larry Z., Falcons fan
Back in those early days, rage was all the Falcons and Saints had that they could call their own. The Falcons didn’t post a winning record until 1971, didn’t reach the playoffs until 1978, and didn’t even reach the conference finals until 1998. The Saints didn’t win more games than they lost until 1987, the first year they made the postseason, and didn’t win a single playoff game until 2000.
Both teams had sideline and front-office bumbling on a galactic scale. The Falcons had cowboy-hatted good ol’ boy Jerry Glanville remembering to dress the team in black and leave tickets for Elvis but failing to devise a coherent game plan. The Saints had Mike Ditka trading away half of New Orleans for Ricky Williams and then posing next to him in a wedding dress for an ESPN The Magazine cover.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) February 7, 2012
But even amid all that futility and absurdity, excellence – or, at least, small victories – emerged, moments ranging from historic and epic to gloriously petty. A non-comprehensive list:
• Atlanta beat Manning-quarterbacked New Orleans in the final game of the 1971 season to move to 7-6-1, the first winning record in franchise history. Two years later, the Falcons beat the Saints 62-7, scoring all 62 points in the final three quarters and intercepting Manning five times.
• Prior to the teams’ matchup in Atlanta in 2012, Falcons fans who worked at the Atlanta airport welcomed the Saints by egging the hell out of their buses. Soon afterward, the Falcons intercepted Brees five times in a 23-13 victory.
• The Saints threw down their worst beating of the series against Atlanta in 1987, beating the Falcons 38-0 on Atlanta’s home field. A few years later, also at Fulton County Stadium, the Saints rallied from an early deficit to defeat the Falcons. “Talk that s— now!” Saints fans gloated, and Phil Frazier, tuba player for the Rebirth Jazz Band, told ESPN a couple years back that he composed a bass line on the spot, right there in the stands. The rest of the band joined in, and “Talk That S— Now” has been a staple of the Rebirth Jazz Band ever since.
• For a New Orleans bank commercial, Sean Payton once ordered the “Roasted Falcon,” smirking all the way:
• In one of the series’ most memorable moments, the Falcons were trailing 17-13 in the Superdome with 19 seconds left, the ball on their own 43-yard line. Bartkowski called a play termed “Big Ben Right,” then lofted a Hail Mary pass that deflected off the hands of Wallace Francis and right into the waiting grasp of Alfred Jackson to secure the improbable 20-17 win.
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 22, 2017
• The Saints beat the Falcons in 2010 to clinch a playoff berth, and posed on the logo at the center of the Georgia Dome. That didn’t sit well. The next year, Brees broke the NFL’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards against the Falcons on Monday Night Football, staying in the game even though New Orleans was up by three touchdowns.
But no game in this series – indeed, almost no game in NFL history – compares to Sept. 25, 2006. On that night, a Monday Night Football showdown that remains one of the most-watched cable programs in history, the Saints returned to the Superdome for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Ninety seconds into the game, the Saints’ Steve Gleason blocked a Michael Koenen punt and Curtis DeLoach fell on the ball in the end zone, staking the Saints to a lead they’d never come close to relinquishing.
“I remember not being able to hear from the time we took the field for warmups until well after we got on the plane,” recalls Matt Schaub, then and now a backup quarterback for the Falcons. “Our ears were buzzing and ringing. It was hard to communicate. Obviously it didn’t go our way, but it seemed like karma was working against us.”
Gleason’s punt block, later immortalized in a statue that now stands outside the Superdome, was exhilarating, triumphant, a living symbol of the city’s resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedy. The fact that it came against the Falcons? Well, that was just God’s extra little gift to the city of New Orleans.
“When you ask Saints fans to talk about the Falcons, half of them will just scream, ‘28-3! 28-3! 28-3!’ until you walk away, while the other half will be too drunk to make coherent sound come out their beerholes.”
-Adam R., Falcons fan
You’d think that a history of shared agony would bind fans together. Hell no. A broken heart is just a new wound for the other side to target. There’s no “NFC South” loyalty going on here the way there is with, say, the SEC. Georgia fans will grit their teeth and root for Alabama over Ohio State, for example, but Saints fans would rather die than see those damn Falcons enjoy even a touch of success.
Sure, Atlanta owns the all-time edge in the series, but the Saints hold the black-and-gold ace: that Super Bowl ring. The Falcons have two Super Bowl appearances to the Saints’ one, but there’s not a Falcons fan alive who wouldn’t trade those two losses for the Saints’ win.
For two teams with an astounding legacy of failure, it’s a bit ironic that one of the pivotal moments in their rivalry came in the biggest of games. Super Bowl LI – Falcons-Patriots, two years ago – marks the inflection point for both teams. For better and for worse, nothing’s been the same in the rivalry since then.
During the 2017 Super Bowl, when Atlanta faced the New England Patriots, most of the rest of the country was pulling for the Falcons, if only because of the bone-deep hate for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots dynasty. Not so in New Orleans, where hate for the Falcons dwarfed hate for some far-away Northerners. Saints fans on Twitter changed their avatars to Pat the Patriot logo, or re-colored the Patriots’ red and blue into black and gold.
And when the Falcons blew that 28-3 lead … oh, the Crescent City gloating:
Saints pep squad just spelled out “28-3” at halftime pic.twitter.com/LXJ7n90hQl
— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) December 24, 2017
SEASON'S BEATINGS: A banner celebrating the Falcons' epic Super Bowl collapse passes behind the Rebirth statue outside the Superdome before the game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints on Sunday, December 24, 2017. (Photo by Michael DeMocker) #neworleans #nola #neverpunt #saints #falcons #whodat #whodatnation
A post shared by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune (@nolanews) on Dec 24, 2017 at 9:00am PST
Saints coach Sean Payton even got in on the action last season, flashing a “choke” sign at Falcons running back DeVonta Freeman in their first meeting since the Super Bowl.
Falcons fans got the tiniest measure of revenge when the Saints suffered the brutal collapse of that last-second Stefon Diggs-engineered miracle Minnesota win in the divisional playoffs. But as painful as that loss was for Saints fans – Falcons fans knew it was only the flicker of a match next to the searing bonfire that was Super Bowl LI. The only way this score gets evened is when the Falcons win a Super Bowl and the Saints throw up all over themselves on national TV. And considering how both teams are playing this year – the Saints are the NFL’s most ruthless team, while the Falcons have lost four times on the last play of the game – that won’t be happening until 2020 at the earliest.
Add to all that the fact that the Super Bowl is in Atlanta this season, and there’s a very real chance that a horde of Saints fans could descend upon, and maybe even celebrate a damn Super Bowl championship in, Atlanta. Nobody’s really talking about it yet – perhaps not speaking it will keep it from existence – but the idea of your most bitter rival celebrating its greatest joy in your house is enough to send Falcons fans just now showing their faces back under the covers.
But all is cyclical in this rivalry, and before long – probably not before Brees retires, but at some point somewhere down the line – the Saints are going to be down and the Falcons are going to be up. Saints fans will still chirp, and Falcons fans will point to that future scoreboard, and everyone’s going to raise a glass and celebrate the NFL’s best rivalry.
“The right thing to say is that every game means the same,” Saints punter Thomas Morstead says. “That’s kind of a load of crap. I have these games circled on my calendar every year. I can’t tell you how many fans come up to me and say we could go 2-14, and if we beat the Falcons those two weeks, it’s a good season.”
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