There are a lot of rivalries in professional and college sports that are very well known. Some of them, as in the case of the Georgia-Auburn football rivalry, date back over 100 years. Some of them, like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are a traditional rivalry that have been cultivated out of the close proximity of two cities. Some of them, like the Dallas Cowboys – Washington Redskins hate-fest, are very well known and publicized.
But I don’t know that there is a rivalry any more vicious and full of rancor as the one between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. And in 2012, my prediction is it’s only going to get nastier.
The thing about this rivalry that makes it a little different than others, is that it spills over from the field into the stands more than any I’ve ever seen. Falcons and Saints fans have absolutely zero respect for each other, even when one of the two teams is legitimately playing well.
Saints fans revel in the fact that they can wave the capturing of a Lombardi Trophy in the faces of Atlanta, and Falcons fans are just as quick to point out that given recent developments, it would appear that is a tainted championship. I personally have been the recipient of some of the most foul and bloodlust filled hate mail that I’ve ever received when it comes to Saints fans. And in my correspondence with journalists from New Orleans, it would appear that Falcons fans are no less cruel to writers there.
Normally at this point in a story like this, I’d insert an appropriate tweet. But honestly, I don’t know that I could find any that were pertinent to this story that are family-friendly enough.
So why is this such a heated rivalry? There are many factors come into play with this one. The “Who-Dats” and the “Dirty Birds” have a long tradition of malevolence.
The two teams were only separated by one year in their entrances into the NFL – the Falcons in 1966, the Saints in 1967 – and both teams struggled mightily during their infancy. The Falcons were the first of the two teams to have a winning season, the first to make the playoffs, the first to win a playoff game, the first to win the division, and the first to reach a Super Bowl. The Saints were the first to win the Super Bowl…a huge feather in the gold and black cap of the New Orleans faithful.
There is regional pride. With both teams sitting in the heart of the southeast, and in two of it’s more vibrant and well-known cities, it’s only natural that regional bragging rights would be a factor. It’s been a long standing tradition on both sides to bus fans to the opposing stadium for games. But besides the nearly equal tenure in the league and the regional considerations, there is something much more sinister brewing in the absolute contempt and disdain that these two teams and their fan bases feel for one another.
Right now the Falcons hold the edge in overall wins in the series with a 46-40 record (including a victory in the only playoff meeting between the two teams), but the Saints have gotten the best of Atlanta recently, winning the last three games, and ten of the last twelve meetings dating back to 2006. And while there have been a lot of close contests, and fantastic finishes in the series, the more recent games have been indelibly burned in the memory of Falcons fans.
The most recent, the 2011 season Monday Night Football finale in Atlanta, the Saints not only beat down their rivals, but managed to rub some salt in the wounds as well. With the game well in hand, Saints coach Sean Payton opted to leave quarterback Drew Brees in the game to attempt to break the all-time single season passing record. Brees picked apart the hobbled Atlanta secondary and got his record, and got to do it against the team’s biggest rival in their home stadium. Falcons motivation for revenge? If you don’t think so, you don’t know this rivalry too well.
In 2012 the Saints are going to come into the season short-handed. Head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the full season, and interim head coach Joe Vitt is suspended for the first six games of the season. They will also be without star linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season, and will be dealing with other suspensions as well. To the Saints, this may look like an opportunity for them to bond and rise above the dark clouds that have engulfed their franchise this past off-season. But to the Falcons, it may very well look like wounded prey, ready to be swooped down on and picked apart.
Whichever the case, count on this – the two Atlanta-New Orleans games this year are going to be ugly, bloody, trash-talking slugfests. The referees are going to have to get control early, or things could very easily get out of hand.
My prediction: Falcons win both games…and win them big. Former Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton may actually try to dig out his old Falcons jersey by halftime of the first game.