- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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For at least one week, it really doesn’t matter that the New Orleans Saints got off to an 0-4 start or that Bounty Gate seems to have been airing as long as “As The World Turns."
The Saints host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and that means only one thing. The NFC South’s best rivalry -- and one of the NFL’s best rivalries in recent seasons -- will take center stage, and everything else will be forgotten.
Yeah, the Saints are 3-5 and have had more turmoil than perhaps any team in NFL history. Yeah, the Falcons are 8-0 and cruising through a sea of tranquility.
But none of that matters. If the Saints are going to step up and be the Saints of old in just one game this season, it will be this one. If the Falcons are going to slide back in just one game this season (and we’ll discuss their past playoff issues when the time comes), it will be this one.
These teams simply don’t like each other. Although they came into the NFL at roughly the same time (in the mid-1960s) and always had a bit of a geographic rivalry, this only turned into a full-fledged feud in recent years. That’s largely because the teams have been good at the same time, egos have gotten out of control, egos have been bruised, and it’s all made for some great entertainment.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and look at some incidents that have come to define this rivalry.
Photo flap: I’ll start with a game in the Georgia Dome late in the 2010 season. In a classic battle, the Saints edged the Falcons, 17-14, to clinch a playoff spot. But it wasn’t so much what happened in this game that made it memorable. It was what happened after the game.
A group of New Orleans defensive players went to the locker room and then came back out onto the field to have their pictures taken on the Falcons’ logo. The Falcons, a team that tries very hard to keep a low profile and stay out of public controversies, were privately offended and irate.
The Saints, a team that’s not shy about anything, displayed the photos like trophies. Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele used some graphic terms to describe what the Saints were doing, even though I’m certain he was speaking only in the figurative sense.
After Ayodele’s comments went viral, New Orleans assistant head coach Joe Vitt tried to douse the flames by saying how much the Saints respected the Falcons. But, in perhaps breaking an unwritten rule (don’t celebrate on another team’s logo), the damage already was done.
Pouring it on? Then, almost exactly a year removed from the logo fiasco, there was the night in New Orleans when a lot of people (including some in the Falcons’ organization) thought coach Sean Payton was running up the score as he let Drew Brees continue throwing as he set an NFL record for passing yards in a season and the Saints defeated the Falcons, 45-16. In the Atlanta locker room that night, there were more than a few players that felt disrespected, although they could have prevented it by slowing Brees.
Statue war: Respect -– or a lack of it -– can flow both ways. That became obvious this summer when the Saints unveiled a statue of one of the most popular players in franchise history (Steve Gleason) making perhaps the biggest play in franchise history.
The statue replicates Gleason’s punt block in the first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But the other figure in the moment, former Atlanta punter Michael Koenen, has no Falcons’ logos and his name doesn’t appear on the back of his figure.
The Falcons said they realize the significance of Gleason’s play in the history of the Saints and the city of New Orleans, but said they were advised by the NFL not to allow their trademark to be used in connection with things out of their market. The Falcons could have made an exception to the NFL’s guidelines, but elected not to.
That angered a lot of New Orleans fans. Anger is a big part of any rivalry and doesn’t have to be limited just to fans.
Burning bridges: We were reminded of that in the offseason when Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton was a free agent. Lofton eventually signed with the Saints and, throughout the offseason, used every opportunity to take subtle -- sometimes not even subtle -- shots at his former team.
Lofton really drew the line in the sand when he said one of the reasons he signed with the Saints was because he wanted to be with a team that had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. That one didn’t go unnoticed in the Falcons’ offices or locker room in Flowery Branch, Ga. But, long before that, lots of lines were crossed both ways in this rivalry.
With the Saints off to a bad start, this game probably has no playoff implications for them, and the Falcons could pretty much put an end to New Orleans' playoff hopes with a victory. But the Saints would love nothing better than to knock the Falcons from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Heck, if the Saints could win and send the Falcons into a tailspin, it might make their crazy season worthwhile.
If the Falcons win, it keeps them marching toward their ultimate goal -- the Super Bowl -- and that could provide further motivation for them on Sunday. For those that haven’t thought that far ahead, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this season.
Sunday might as well be the Super Bowl for the Saints. They want to derail the Falcons somehow, because the last thing anyone in New Orleans wants to see is Atlanta players celebrating in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February.