FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – What makes a great rivalry?
Is it passion? Is it longevity? Is it competitiveness? Or is it some indiscernible quality that connects two teams and fanbases over a long period of time, turning their shared commonalities into something unique and inclusive?
However you choose to describe why a sports rivalry begins and endures, the Falcons-Saints rivalry certainly fits the description.
The Falcons and Saints played their first game against one another on Nov. 26, 1967, which ended in a 27-24 victory for New Orleans. It's fitting that the first meeting between these two teams was so competitive, as that is arguably the best term to use when describing this rivalry.
Entering Sunday's game, which carries big playoff implications for both teams, the Falcons and Saints have played a total of 97 times and they've played at least twice a season since 1970. After 97 games, the Falcons hold a slim, 52-45 lead in the all-time series and have scored 2,160 points in that span to the Saints' 2,022 points.
The competition over the duration of this rivalry is apparent, but that same quality shines through in the individual games, themselves.
Excitement from the very beginning
Over the years, there have been numerous breathtaking finishes and spectacular individual performances.
In the final game of the 1971 season, the Falcons scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to erase a seven-point deficit and secure a 24-20 win over Archie Manning (No. 8 below) and the Saints. The victory pushed the Falcons to 7-6-1 on the season, giving Atlanta its first winning record in franchise history.
Just two years later, the Falcons began their 1973 season with a dominant 62-7 victory over the Saints. Atlanta scored all 62 points over the final three quarters and intercepted Manning five times in the contest. That game remains the most lopsided outcome in the history of this rivalry, and the most lopsided loss in Saints' history.
Following a loss in their first meeting against the Saints in 1971, the Falcons rattled off nine straight wins in the rivalry, going undefeated against New Orleans from 1969 through 1973. Beginning in 1974, the series became less one-sided and really began to intensify.
That intensity picked up greatly in 1978. Trailing 17-13 with only 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter of their Week 11 matchup with the Saints, Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski called "Big Ben Right," a Hail Marry pass into the end zone. Bartkowski heaved the ball towards the end zone and watched as it was deflected into the hands of receiver Alfred Jackson for a game-winning touchdown and a stunning 20-17 victory on the road.
Just two weeks later, the Falcons and Saints played for the second time in a three-game stretch – which marks the last time that's happened in this rivalry prior to this season. Once again, the Falcons trailed 17-13 with just 53 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Bartkowski calmly engineered a 72-yard drive in 48 seconds to win the game with a 1-yard pass to Jim Mitchell in front of an excited crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Those two last-second wins ultimately swung the fortunes of the two rivals. The Saints finished the season with a 7-9 record, while the Falcons ended at 9-7 and earned their first postseason berth in franchise history.
From Atlanta's 27-20 victory in New Orleans in the only playoff game between these two teams in 1991, to the block by Steve Gleason in 2006 that helped the Saints dominate in their first game back in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, there has been no lack of memorable moments on both sides of this rivalry.
Over the last decade, the games have only gotten more competitive.
The last decade: Closing the gap
Since 2008, the Saints and Falcons have played a total of 19 times, with the Saints holding an 11-8 series record during that span. Of those 19 games, a whopping 13 have been decided by 8 points or less.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon played a role in several of those games for the Falcons. Drafted in 2010, Weatherspoon has been around for 11 games against the Saints, playing in eight of them. In a Thursday night game during the memorable 2012 season, Weatherspoon intercepted Drew Brees and helped the Falcons' defense hold the Saints to just 13 points in a 23-13 victory.
"It seems like this game is the one where everyone gets involved with it in the city," Weatherspoon said. "From Hall County, to Gwinnett, to Fulton, to Clayton, you just keep going. Everybody around here is really all in, regardless of what the records might. It could be the Toilet Bowl, and it's still like, 'You better handle your business.'
"You feel that energy, and you feed off of that. I think it makes the game a little more edgy. It's just more urgent when it's this game."
Fans of either team often explain the passion that surrounds this game even in otherwise forgettable seasons as a way to describe just how essential a win is in this rivalry. Like a great college football rivalry, the sting of a bad season can be somewhat lessened with a win over the Saints or the Falcons.
In many ways, the lackluster beginnings of both franchises played a big role in building this great rivalry into what it is today.
The Geography factor
Following the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Falcons and Saints were placed in the NFC West division alongside the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams.
And while the 49ers and Rams were among the NFL's dominant teams from the 70s through the 90s, combining for 34 playoff appearances, 25 NFC West titles and six Super Bowl victories, the Falcons and Saints were often forgotten and fighting amongst themselves for third place.
Geography also played a large factor in the rivalry. For much of their existence, the Falcons and the Saints were the two NFL teams located in what is traditionally viewed as the Deep South. Given their placement in the NFC West with two teams located in California, it's easy to see how a rivalry formed between these two neighboring teams.
Deep South has deep football roots
"I think part of the reason why these two fan bases have such good passion about football [is] it's football states," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "In Louisiana and Georgia, if you had checked people all over the country in the NFL, chances are somebody on that roster is from Georgia or from Louisiana, so they've grown up in it from high school ball through college ball and the pro ball. Both these states all the way up, football is really important, so that's why I think this connection probably takes place between these two states, the two franchises. Because in some respects, they kind of have a similar path of really good youth football, high school football, college football, pro football, so it kind of just works its way all the way up."
The proximity also lent itself to allowing fan bases to follow the team on trips to Atlanta or New Orleans, as ESPN's Len Pasquarelli noted in a 2006 column. "There are great, unknown, geographic rivalries, too," Pasquarelli wrote. "Most folks outside the Southeast, for instance, laugh when told that one of the most colorful regional rivalries in all of sport is that between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities. Unless you've attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you'll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be."
Stoking the fires
After finding its footing in the background and out of the spotlight, the Falcons-Saints rivalry has recently come into prominence. With exciting players and compelling matchups, the success of both teams over the past several years have only added to the tension and importance of these games.
Just this year, Saints head coach Sean Payton provided another iconic moment for the rivalry, when he flashed a choke gesture in the direction of running back Devonta Freeman. Immediately after the game, Payton said he did not remember making the gesture, but he later apologized and explained how the emotions of the game got the better of him in the moment.
"Listen, I've got great respect for him, not only as a player, but also for Coach Quinn and those guys," Payton said during a conference call this week. "It's a rivalry game, but I would say this, it becomes a better rivalry game when the two teams are playing for something.
"Look, when you look in the divisions and the way they are made up now, it's been a while since a game between Atlanta and New Orleans meant something from a division standpoint, playoff standpoint."
Plenty on the line Sunday
This weekend's matchup, the 98th meeting between these two teams, means everything from a division and playoff standpoint. The winner of Sunday's game will clinch a spot in the postseason and move one step closer towards winning one of the tightest division races the NFL has had in years.
When New Orleans clinched a playoff spot after winning in Atlanta in 2010, Saints players came back out onto the field to pose for a picture on the Falcons' logo. In this rivalry, when gravity is added to a Falcons-Saints game, it always leads to something interesting.
With the Saints losing to the Falcons in Atlanta, in a game many Saints fans feel the refs played a significant factor, New Orleans is expected to have a ravenous atmosphere when its biggest rival comes to town.
Weatherspoon expects nothing less from what he calls a "special" environment in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"It's the only environment that I've seen that's been pandemonium," he said. "Going against Atlanta? Man, from the fans in the front seats, they're calling you by name like, 'You ain't got nothing!' "The position that we're in takes it to another level. It doesn't even matter who we're playing right now, it's all about getting the W. But, with this one, we know that it's about the bragging rights."