Its the NFL rivalry that no one outside the South talks about much. But the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints hate each other. That hate will be renewed Sunday in yet another big game.
Just call the Saints the enemy. Thats what they really are to the Falcons. Theyve always been a thorn in Atlantas side, whether they were horrible, as they were in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, or if they are good, as theyve been for most of the past decade.
If youre old enough to remember the Big Ben plays from 1978, youll know how far this war goes back. That was what the Falcons called two late-game long Hail Mary touchdown passes by Steve Bartkowski that kept bags over the Saints fans heads.
You might remember the first game at the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Of course, the Falcons were conveniently the competition for the Saints. And if you ask any Falcons fan, theyll seriously tell you that the NFL might have had a hand in making sure the home team came out on top.
Theres that game two years ago in Atlanta, when the Saints won and danced on the Falcons logo at midfield after the game. They took pictures and reportedly did something else to the logo that I dont know if I can even write about without getting furious myself at the hoodlums from New Orleans.
Then last year Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke the NFL single-season record for passing yards at home against Atlanta. He already had been taken out of the game as the Saints had a huge lead. But head coach Sean Payton put Brees back in so he could do it against Atlanta. It infuriated the Falcons, who already have said thats one thing theyll remember this week.
You might love college football, and you might hate your favorite teams biggest rival. But I dare to believe that if you love the Falcons, not one of those college teams will come close to making you hate anyone or anything as much as the Saints.
Truthfully, their success the past few years makes the rivalry even more important. Now that the Falcons have also become winners, it makes these games even more crucial. Theyre all important, even if both teams are horrible. But now that both teams are two of the best in the NFC, its more of a must-win.
For the Falcons, in their current situation, its the biggest must-win in years going to New Orleans. Atlanta is 8-0, the only undefeated team in the league. Theres no way the Falcons want the undefeated season to end against this particular opponent.
Look, the Falcons have a very good team. Atlanta will prove to us in the next three months if it is truly a great team. Atlanta by no means is a team that can run the table, and it probably shouldnt want to. If you took head coach Mike Smith out for a few cocktails, he might admit to you it might even help his team if it loses a game, so it can get that out of the way and learn from it to avoid it down the road.
But not this week. No way. The Falcons cannot lose to New Orleans. Lose to any other team to put a straight number in the loss column, but not the Saints.
New Orleans obviously has had a troubled season. The Bounty Gate has crippled the season, with Payton out for the year and linebacker Jonathan Vilma still embroiled in a legal debate with the NFL. The Saints are 3-5 after the victory over Philadelphia on Monday, but theyre hanging on by a thread.
You know there is nothing more theyll want to do than to give Atlanta its first loss of the season. It will make their season, especially if they do not get on track and this is one to forget.
This is the year for Atlanta to punish the Saints. New Orleans has the fourth worst pass defense in the NFL. So this is the game for Matt Ryan to throw for 400 yards and four or five touchdowns. He can do it, especially against a leaky defense.
Sundays game will be part one of the seasons story in this rivalry. The two teams will meet again in two-and-a-half weeks. And the Falcons could have the last laugh if they complete this storybook season with a win in the Super Bowl.
Take a guess as to where it is this year.
That would be the last laugh, wouldnt it?
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.