*The second meeting of the season for the Falcons and Saints is Monday night, and with a playoff berth on the line for the Saints and home-field advantage at stake for the Falcons its magnitude is tremendous. A look back at the two teams' first game earlier this season showed the Falcons winning in a way that went on to become a way of life for this year's team. *
There have been many years in the history of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons franchises that regular season matchups didn't mean much. Entering the 2010 season, both franchises had identical 42 percent all-time winning percentages.
But after the Saints won the Super Bowl last season and the Falcons made a name for themselves in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era, the seasonal meetings entering 2010 held a lot more weight.
In Week 3, the two teams squared off in New Orleans and the Falcons came away the victors, winning a 27-24 heart-stopper that in hindsight was a breakthrough game for Atlanta. Although the Falcons slipped up in Week 6 against the Eagles, they used the win over their division foe and league measuring stick as a catapult to the run that lands them at 12-2 on the season, first in the NFC and in a Monday night showdown with the Saints, this time at the Georgia Dome.
Week 3's win over the Saints had everything the Falcons have made their trademark this season: narrow victories, resiliency, dominating time of possession and controlling the line of scrimmage.
A drive that many Falcons will point to as the signature drive of the season came in the second quarter against the Saints. Down by a touchdown, Atlanta took over on its 28-yard line after an interception by safety Thomas DeCoud.
What happened next was a dominant display of the balanced Atlanta offense that they would unleash on the rest of the NFL for the next 12 weeks. A 19-play drive that took more than 10 minutes off the clock ended in a Michael Turner 1-yard touchdown run.
The game was tied, the Saints used two of their timeouts and they were left with one minute to take back the lead before the half.
It wasn't about swinging momentum at that juncture of the game, only about going toe-to-toe with the defending champs. For Smith, it was about matching what the Saints do best — control games with their offense.
"I thought that that was not necessarily a turning point, but it was a statement when you talk about controlling the tempo of the football game," Smith said after the game. "That's at the core of what they (the Saints) want to do. They want to control the tempo with all of the groupings and the different looks that they give you on defense. We wanted to basically make sure that we controlled the tempo of the football game."
The end result of the 27-24 victory for Atlanta was a time of possession that favored Atlanta by 18 minutes and the second-quarter 10-minute drive set the pace.
But the Saints are the champs for a reason and they made a game of it, tying the contest at 24 with nine seconds remaining in the game, forcing overtime.
In the extra minutes, a missed field goal by the Saints gave the Falcons new life and Ryan led the Falcons on a game-winning drive, something he would prove to be very good at in the 2010 season.
It was a drive that took down the champs in their home, a notoriously hostile environment. It was the springboard for a season to never forget.
Ryan called the win a confidence builder and wide receiver Roddy White spoke to the character of the Falcons, saying this year's team would put forth an effort that would make its fans proud, a statement that proved to true.
"This victory means a lot to us," White said. "It shows the division that we are going to compete, week in and week out. We are going to go out there and do whatever it takes to win. I'm just so proud of all of these guys today. This is a character win. We have so many good players on our team. The Saints, every time we play them we know its going to be tough because this is a big rivalry."
On Monday, the Falcons welcome their biggest rival to town in front of a national television audience with an opportunity to make an even bigger statement than the one before it.