When it comes to New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons, the rivalry doesn't start with the opening kickoff. No, it begins the moment the visiting team arrives in enemy territory. And if this week is any indication, Thursday night's game ought to be a beauty.
Wednesday night, the Saints had deplaned at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta and were boarding their team bus when they experienced a new kind of heckling: eggs. Seriously. Airport workers were throwing eggs at them. Saints players responded quickly on Twitter:
"Guess they really do hate us!" tweeted backup QB Chase Daniel.
"Classy!" added tight end Jimmy Graham.
EggGate is now the latest salvo in what's fast becoming one of the NFL's most compelling rivalries, a battle both on field and off. Appropriately enough for its Southern locale, it's the rivalry that most resembles college football, where attitude and personality play key roles, and where everyone – fan and player alike – is a combatant.
For most of their shared half-century of existence, the rivalry between the Falcons and the Saints has been the NFL equivalent of kittens tussling over a strand of yarn – cute, but utterly inconsequential.
Oh, sure, there were flashes, as one team or the other bubbled up in the standings for a year or so. But for most of their long history, the Saints and the Falcons have been unenviable icons of football futility.
The teams arrived in the NFL within a year of each other, twin outposts in a then-untapped New South, and for most of their existence have been little more than warm-weather stops and guaranteed W's on the schedules of old-school franchises. Even though both teams, and their fans, always treated their two annual meetings as must-win bloodsport, you could feel the sarcasm oozing out of Pittsburgh and Dallas and Chicago: Those two teams hate each other? That's just precious.
A serious rivalry is one so intense that fans who don't even have skin in the game envy the matchup. You may loathe both the Redskins and the Cowboys, but if you're a fan of, say, the Jaguars or the Chargers, you can't deny a twinge of jealousy at the fact you don't have anybody that hates you quite that much. Outside of their weather (Atlanta) and sanctioned debauchery (New Orleans), nobody has cast an envious eye at the NFC South in quite some time.
But change is afoot. As the teams prepare for a Thursday night battle that has playoff implications for New Orleans and self-respect implications for Atlanta, it's worth taking a look back at the rivalry's high points (it won't take long) and its bright, if mouthy, future.
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The teams have met only once in the postseason, a 1991 wild-card matchup that Atlanta won. Over 46 years, they've almost split their 86 regular-season meetings (Atlanta has won 45, New Orleans 41), a record that's perfectly appropriate in its zero-ground-gained balance.
Without a doubt, the most significant game between the two teams occurred in 2006, as it was the first game played in the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. That was, at the time, the most-watched game in ESPN's history; it featured everyone from U2 and Green Day in a pregame concert to President George W. Bush conducting the opening coin toss. The Saints demolished the Falcons 23-3, beginning with a blocked-punt/touchdown just minutes into the game.
"That was an opening statement right there," Saints receiver Marques Colston said in 2011. "That game is what laid the foundation of where we are as a team and an organization today, and that touchdown set it off."
Atlanta, meanwhile, was building a reputation of its own, first on the legs of Michael Vick (remember, there was a time, pre-dogfights, that he was projected as the NFL's Michael Jordan) and now on the multipronged offensive attack helmed by Matt Ryan. It's reached its apex this year, as the Falcons have gone 10-1 en route to a near-certain playoff berth.
Their one loss? To New Orleans, of course.
Which brings up an important point. On the field, the Saints have owned the last half-decade, winning 11 of the last 13 games. (Credit to that Brees fella.) And of course that's led to the predictable big-brother/little-brother dynamic, to use linebacker Scott Shanle's dead-on characterization. The Falcons speak of the Saints with a determined we're-not-scared-of-you edge to their voices: "I think there is no question about [the rivalry's emotion]," Falcons running back Michael Turner said earlier this week. "You can see the difference in intensity when we play them."
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The Saints, on the other hand, treat Atlanta like dirt on their shoulder: Curtis Lofton, who now plays for New Orleans after four years in Atlanta, said this week that the Saints see this as "a division game, not a rivalry game." In other words, pipe down, kids.
"The New Orleans-Atlanta rivalry may not be looked at by the rest of the country as one of the great rivalries in sports, but I don't care," says Rob Brown, a sports talk host on WTKE in Destin, Fla. "As an FSU fan, I don't 'hate' Florida or Miami fans. I don't like them. But I don't hate them. I see the ATL Falcon logo, and it drives me to disgust."
You can't blame the rest of the NFL for not according Atlanta-New Orleans the same respect as, say, Green Bay-Chicago or New England-Indy. There's almost no legacy of winning, little history of success against the rest of the league. New Orleans didn't win a playoff game for its first 34 years of existence. And it took Atlanta 44 freaking years to post back-to-back winning seasons.
The teams are a combined 1-1 in the Super Bowl; New Orleans' victory after the 2009 season was a justifiable and deserved triumph, but the three wins the Saints posted in that championship run comprise half of the franchise's total postseason victories. And the less said about Atlanta's embarrassing Super Bowl cameo after the 1998 season (pointless trash talking; the team's moral leader arrested for solicitation the night before the game), the better.
Now, though, that's on the verge of change. Any team with Drew Brees in the lineup is always a legitimate playoff threat. And, by record at least, the Falcons are the class of the NFL, even if everybody outside the 404 area code is waiting for them to prove themselves in the postseason.
Thursday night's game gives both teams an opportunity not just to firm up their own foundations, but those of the rivalry as well. Expect a memorable throwdown … and some quality quotes afterward.
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