The 100th edition of the NFL's most underrated rivalry takes place tonight, when the New Orleans Saints host the despised Atlanta Falcons to cap a Thanksgiving triple header. The two franchises share a number of similarities. The Falcons began play in 1966, just one year before their southern rivals. Both teams have gone to the postseason 14 times, with 6 division titles each. Atlanta holds the edge in the series, 52-47, and have a 25-24 record in New Orleans. The NFL version of the Hatfields and McCoys, Coke vs. Pepsi, Darth vs. Luke, Duke vs. Carolina, Alabama vs. Auburn is deep in bitterness, hate, and ridicule. It started innocently enough, with their first meeting in New Orleans on November 26, 1967, held in Tulane Stadium. The Saints overcame 21 second quarter points from Atlanta, holding the Falcons to just 86 passing yards for the game. A fourth quarter touchdown pass from Billy Kilmer to Kent Kramer led the expansion Saints to a 27-24 victory, just the second win in their history. The Saints would lose to Atlanta the next nine times they'd face, four of those at their Tulane stadium home, including a 62-7 embarrassment at home in the 1973 season opener. That streak was finally ended with a 14-3 New Orleans victory in the 1974 season, the final year before entering a new chapter in the franchise, The Superdome.
The Louisiana Superdome became home to the New Orleans Saints in the 1975 season, and they would host the Falcons for the first time on November 2nd, the seventh game of the season. The Saints defense forced 6 turnovers and sacked Falcons quarterbacks five times, allowing them to complete just 39% of their passes. New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning overcame three interceptions of his own and completed a 71-yd. scoring strike to Larry Burton, who caught 4 passes for 159 yards on the day, in a 23-7 Saints victory. That would be the first of four consecutive home victories by New Orleans in the series, and would dominate their rivals again at home the following year. On October 10th, 1976, the Saints would record their only home shutout win of this series, with a 30-0 blanking of Atlanta. The defense would have another outstanding performance, holding the Falcons to only 168 total yards while recording 5 sacks and forcing 7 turnovers, including an 83 yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Jim Merlo. Both teams would struggle during the early 1970's, but each would put together playoff contending squads by later in the decade. They would meet twice down the stretch of the 1978 season with potential postseason berths on the line, only to end in heartbreak for the Saints fanbase.
On November 12th, 1978, the Saints would host their rivals in perhaps the most important meeting between the two up to that point. New Orleans would carry a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter, but a defensive letdown and some questionable play calling by the Saints would set them up for disaster. Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski would complete a miraculous 57 yard touchdown pass to Alfred Jackson on the final play of the game to pull out an improbable 20-17 Falcon victory. The play, Jackson's only catch of the game , was nicknamed "Big Ben", and would live in infamy in Saints history. After defeating New Orleans again in the final moments later in the '78 season, the stage was set for a grudge match to open 1979. On September 2, 1979, the season opener, Saints-Falcons would turn into a thrilling shootout that would become a trademark of the rivalry. New Orleans would wind up with 512 total yards, led by Chuck Muncie's 161 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Wes Chandler's 205 receiving yards, a team record that would stand until broken by Michael Thomas this season. That was countered by 552 yards from the Falcons, led by 312 passing yards and three scores from Bartkowski, 167 rushing yards from William Andrews, and 131 receiving yards from Alfred Jenkins. Atlanta put their rival down to another infuriating defeat, this time by a 40-34 overtime margin. It was the first overtime game in the series between the two, but there would be seven more to come, with the Saints coming out on the losing end six of the eight times.
The 1980's were evenly matched as far as victories between the two, but games were rarely close. Atlanta began the decade by winning five straight against the Saints, but New Orleans would close out the 80's with a 10-9 edge in wins, primarily due to the ferocity of their Dome Patrol linebacking corps and a rugged defense. Both teams had again built themselves into playoff contenders by the late 1980's and into the early 90's, and would begin the 1990's by adding another feisty chapter in their growing novel of bitterness.
The two teams would wind up on a collision course during the 1991 season, culminating in two showdowns in the Superdome late in the year. On November 24, 1991 in New Orleans, the Falcons would overcome 138 yards rushing by Saints back Fred McAfee, 115 yards receiving by Floyd Turner, and a 10-pt. Saints lead in the 4th quarter. The hero of the Atlanta comeback would be wide receiver Michael Haynes, a New Orleans native who would go on to play for the Saints a few years later. Haynes caught six passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns, the first an 80-yd. explosion, and the second an 18-yd. score that would tie the game late in regulation. The Falcons would go on to win, 23-20 in overtime, but the Saints would still manage to win the NFC West that year, setting up an epic rematch just 34 days later. The sequel took place again in New Orleans, in the wild card round of the playoffs, the only postseason meeting between the two in the series. Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert would throw two critical interceptions, but it was once again Haynes that crushed the hearts of his hometown. He would again catch six passes, this time for 144 yards and another two touchdowns. His second score was a 61-yd. catch and run late in the fourth quarter that would break a tie game and clinch Atlanta's 27-20 victory. The Dome Patrol Saints would slowly break up after the following year, then have to completely rebuild their team later in the 1990's. They would lose 10 games in a row to their Georgia counterparts from 1995-99, and 8 of 10 home games to the Falcons between 1993-2002. New Orleans would finally take control of this rivalry in the mid-2000's, with a couple personnel moves that would alter their history.
Sean Payton was given his first head coaching job with the Saints in 2006, and among his first moves was to sign a free agent quarterback named Drew Brees. The two men would become perhaps the most reviled Saints if you were on the Atlanta side of the rivalry, but they first had to help New Orleans rebuild not only a football team, but in some ways an entire region. The Saints entered the 2006 season after being displaced much of the previous year because of the tragic damage to the area from Hurricane Katrina. Their first game back in the Dome in over a year would come on a Monday night, September 25, 2006, against the Atlanta Falcons. Early in the game, Saints defensive back Steve Gleason would block a Falcons punt that teammate Curtis DeLoatch would recover in the end zone, sending the home crowd into an emotional frenzy. The Saints defense would sack Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick five times on the night, allowing him to complete only 38% of his passes on their way to a resounding 23-3 victory. Payton's Saints would win the next 11 out of 13 games in this rivalry, including 7 of 8 victories at home between 2006-13.
One of the most dominant figures in this rivalry is quarterback Drew Brees. He has a 17-8 record against Atlanta as the Saints starting quarterback, including a 9-3 record in home games. Brees has averaged 310 yards passing per game against Atlanta, and has thrown for at least 295 yards in 19 of his 25 games against them, while throwing 48 touchdown passes. One of his finest moments came on December 26, 2011, during a Monday night home game against the Falcons. The Saints had one of NFL history's most productive passing offenses that season, and would set numerous league records throughout the year. With just under three minutes remaining in the game and his team leading 38-16, Brees would complete a 9-yd. scoring pass to running back Darren Sproles to finalize a convincing 45-16 victory. The pass would move Brees past Dan Marino in breaking an NFL single season record for passing yards in a season, a hallowed record that had stood for 27 years.
Another holiday get together that these two hated foes had took place just last year on December 24, the last meeting between the two in New Orleans. Defensive end Cam Jordan, who has 10 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in fifteen career meetings against the Falcons, had two of his team's five sacks of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in a 23-13 Christmas Eve win. The last meeting between the Falcons and Saints was earlier this year in a week three showdown in Atlanta. Brees had one of his most brilliant games in a brilliant career against Atlanta, completing 39 of 49 passes for 396 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and two more rushing touchdowns where he bulldozed his way through defenders for scores. His team needed every bit of it, as Ryan countered with 374 passing yards and five touchdowns. Falcons receivers Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones embarrassed Saints coverage that day, catching 12 passes for a combined 242 yards and 3 touchdowns from Ridley. New Orleans answered with 10 catches and 129 receiving yards from wideout Michael Thomas, and 190 yards from scrimmage from Alvin Kamara, which included 15 receptions for 124 yards. The Saints prevailed in a classic 43-37 overtime victory, possibly setting the stage for yet another entertaining but very physical shootout.
The 9-1 Saints have not lost since the season opener, and are the hottest team in the NFL. They average 38 points per game, and rank near the top of the league in both rushing and passing yardage. Their defense is one of the best at stopping the run, and can create big plays in the passing game with a strong rush up front and playmakers in the secondary. Atlanta comes into the game with a 4-6 record and clinging to fading playoff chances. Although they can rack up passing yardage with Ryan, Jones, Ridley, and a number of other targets, they have been unable to establish a running attack without injured running back Devonta Freeman. Defensively they rank in the bottom third of the league in most categories. They have some talented pass rushers up front with Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Takkarist McKinley, but are missing their best defender in linebacker Deion Jones. Although they have some talent at cornerback with Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, they have been hit hard by injuries at safety and unable to contain Saints wideout Michael Thomas in previous meetings.
New Orleans should be able to get to Ryan with their pass rush, and if coverage holds up in the secondary can likely force a few key turnovers. Thomas has at least 10 receptions and over 115 yards receiving in three of five games against the Falcons, and is re-setting team records on a weekly basis with his production this season. Look for backs Kamara and Mark Ingram to be heavily involved in the passing game with the absence of Deion Jones. Brees is having one of his finest seasons, and should be a league M.V.P. favorite. The team's offensive line has dominated every opponent they've faced, and even without injured left tackle Terron Armstead may do the same against the Falcons front, allowing their quarterback time to throw and possible big production from their running game. Atlanta may be the desperate team, but the Saints are a focused, talented, and confident team on a roll in a prime time stage. They will give their fans a Thanksgiving dessert by sticking a fork in these Dirty Birds.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!