The Most Underappreciated Rivalry in the NFL

You want a rivalry? The Falcons and the Saints have a pretty good one, even if not many people know about it around the country.

We hate them. They hate us. That’s what a rivalry is all about.

It may not be the Cowboys and Redskins, or the Raiders and Chiefs, or the Bears and Packers, but the rivalry between the Falcons and Saints is special. It’s one of the more underappreciated rivalries in the NFL. And the people involved, the players, the fans, know how heated it is.

The Falcons lead the series. New Orleans folk may not want to admit it, but it’s true. The two teams have played 90 times since 1967, with Atlanta holding a 47-43 advantage. Yes, the Saints have had the Falcons’ number recently, winning 13 out of the last 16 games. That has happened since Sean Payton, who had to sit out a season while suspended, was the head coach for New Orleans.

The Falcons still hold the series lead (repeated to make Saints’ fans mad).

For some reason, the Falcons have borrowed a couple of the Saints’ players over the years. Bobby Hebert worked out pretty well, and we all love Morten Anderson for the certain kick in Minnesota. But we could do without Joe Horn and it would’ve been better if the Falcons had not hired the son of the former Saints’ head coach.

Having a Mora as a coach was not preferable. He valued his position as Atlanta’s coach so much he went on the radio and said he’d love to be the head coach at the University of Washington. That made Falcons’ fans feel really good.

But he was the son of a former Saints coach, so should we have been surprised?

When the Saints come to Atlanta, their fans infect the Georgia Dome like ants pouring into a new bed. When the Falcons hit the road, Falcons fans return the favor. It’s only a seven-hour drive between cities, so it can be quite a road trip.

For years, the Falcons and Saints battled it out for the bottom of the NFC West. The Rams and 49’ers led the way in that division until realignment put Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South.

Many (like myself) first knew about this rivalry in the late-1970s. It was Steve Bartkowski versus Archie Manning, two quarterbacks leading mediocre/bad teams. That was good times for Falcons’ fans, as Saints’ fans occasionally showed up to games with bags over their head and renamed the team the ‘Aints.’

The play was called “Big Ben.” Atlanta was down 17-13 in a 1978 game. Bartkowski threw a hail Mary pass to Alfred Jackson. It was for 57 yards and it won the game for the Falcons. Two weeks later, in Atlanta, the Falcons won by the same score to break the Saints’ hearts.

The only playoff game between the two teams was in 1991, when Atlanta won another thriller. Chris Miller chunked a long, 61-yard touchdown pass to Michael Haynes late in the fourth quarter. That was quite a memory, as we can still hear Larry Munson screaming Haynes’ name.

Falcons' fans believe the game played right after the Superdome opened up after Hurricane Katrina was fixed - that the NFL wanted the Saints to win. And most who think that a certain Saints' coach relieved himself on the Falcons turf after a New Orleans win have nothing but contempt for a man who actually once received a paycheck from the Falcons.

Last season there were two close games. New Orleans won both of them. In the Crescent City, the Saints won 23-17 and then in late November they won again in Atlanta 17-13. Most of these games are close, and you can expect Sunday’s to be the same way.

They have Drew Brees. We have Matt Ryan. They have Jimmy Graham. We have Roddy White and Julio Jones. They have Rob Ryan on the sideline. We have Bryan Cox.

It’s going to be a great game Sunday. They know we hate them. We know the feeling is mutual. We wouldn’t want it to be any other way. That’s what a rivalry is all about, and this is a pretty good one.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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