Sunday’s game at the Georgia Dome will be a bit unusual. Two rivals that had gotten used to preparing for the playoffs will instead simply be playing out the regular season schedule.
The Falcons are 8-7. They have a lot to play for. A win will obviously get them a winning season, which would be important for first-year head coach Dan Quinn. It would also give the team a three-game winning streak headed into the offseason, which is some consolation for the horrid stretch that ruined the season following the 5-0 start to begin the year.
The Saints are 6-9, and while their chance at a winning season is history, New Orleans still wants to win the game for the head coach. Sean Payton is under fire, with rumors he may be fired if they lose this game.
But, of course, forget about the records. Forget about the fact neither team is headed to the playoffs. Forget about the storylines that have these two teams where they are in the final week.
This is a rivalry. None of that matters. This is all about beating the team you love to hate.
Usually in this situation I would want to Falcons to lose. Go for the draft pick when you know you’re not going to the playoffs. This team needs talent, and it needs a good offseason to take that next step. But they’re playing the Saints, so forget about the draft pick.
New Orleans needs pay for what they did to Atlanta in week six. The Falcons were undefeated and riding high, but when they went to the Superdome New Orleans won by 10 points. The game really wasn’t that close, and the loss sent the Falcons into the tailspin that changed the season from something special to just another year.
The week leading up to that game I asked some of the new players on the Falcons roster if they understood how serious the rivalry between Atlanta and New Orleans is. Truthfully, the answers were bothersome. Perhaps it was just the combination of a new coaching staff and a roster that had 45% turnover, but there didn’t seem to be as much urgency about the Saints game as needed.
This is the most underrated rivalry in the NFL. The Falcons’ fans hate the Saints and want New Orleans to lose every game they play. The Saints’ fans feel the same way, and we probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
For me, this goes back to the late-1970s, when both teams weren’t very good. But they had some great games. Steve Bartkowski was Atlanta’s star back then, while the Saints countered with a less-talented passer named Archie Manning.
From the ‘Big Ben’ games when Bartkowski threw a few long hail Mary touchdown passes at the end of some games to the rivalry that has developed while Payton has been New Orleans’ coach, this is and always will be the game both of these teams have to win.
Falcons’ fans may remember an incident in 2010 when the Saints were really good. After New Orleans won in Atlanta, a group of the players and reportedly at least one of their assistant coaches (who happened to coach with the Falcons a few years earlier) urinated on the Falcons’ logo at midfield of the Georgia Dome after the game.
This may be childish. This may sound like I’m in third grade. But if I’m the coach of the Falcons I remind the players every single season what those hoodlums did that year. That’s a rivalry, and while the Saints players may play in a Dome that is used to that kind of activity, the Falcons shouldn’t and can’t let that happen on their home turf.
So yes, Sunday’s game matters. It means everything. It will define the season. The Falcons can’t lose to a bad Saints’ team twice in the same season. They need the draft pick position, but they need to beat their arch-rival even more to finish this season.
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 email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.