In Week 10, the Atlanta Falcons will put their undefeated record on the line against the suddenly resurgent New Orleans Saints. From a distance, this game does not appear to be "must see" TV. An 8-0 team taking on a 3-5 team might be a hard sell. But this Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, one of the most underrated rivalries in the NFL may reach a boiling point.
A History of Hate
The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were essentially born rivals. The Falcons came into the league in 1966, and the Saints followed in 1967. The two were placed oddly enough in the NFC West. While both teams were dominated by the division rival San Francisco 49ers, a healthy rivalry developed between the two cellar dwellers. And no matter what either team's record was, chartered bus trips ensured that thousands of opposing fans were present every time they faced off.
Growing More Bitter
The rivalry has become more personal for the two teams in recent years. For three straight seasons, the two teams have finished in the top two spots in the NFC South. The Saints won the division in 2009 and 2011. Atlanta took the division in 2010. But the added intensity goes deeper than that.
The New Orleans Saints have dominated the Atlanta Falcons for years. But starting in 2010, there have been a series of incidents that the Atlanta Falcons players have taken personally.
It began with a simple photo. After the Saints defeated the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in 2010, some of the Saints players returned to the field to pose on top of the Falcons logo. Some took it as gloating and disrespectful.
In 2011, the Falcons not only failed to exact revenge, but further secured their spot as New Orleans' whipping boy. In the final minutes of a humiliating 45-16 defeat, the Falcons allowed themselves to be a part of Saints history. Already up by a score of 38-16 in the fourth quarter, New Orleans continued an aggressive passing attack to secure Drew Brees a place in the record books.
Even the 2012 offseason was not safe from the growing contempt between the two teams. The New Orleans Saints decided to erect a statue to celebrate their post-Katrina 2006 turnaround. They chose to enshrine the game-changing punt block by Steve Gleason during the Falcons-Saints game in 2006. The Atlanta Falcons refused to let their logo be used on the statue.
While that is a cherished memory for the New Orleans Saints and their fans, their division rival and recent punching bags may have a different view of the game. Many Atlanta Falcons fans I have spoken to recall the game as being sacrificial lambs. Atlanta President Rich McKay addressed it by saying, "It was not something that we wanted to memorialize the game. So we kind of looked at it as though we didn't want necessarily a statue in front of the building that had our marks."
Meaningful Game in 2012
The upcoming game is incredibly important for both teams. The Saints are trying to salvage the season after an 0-4 start. The Falcons are trying to stay perfect and keep a stranglehold on the division.
But maybe, just maybe, this game will mean more than that for the players on the field.