Once when I was covering the Atlanta Thrashers for Journal-Constitution, I hitched an early ride from Buffalo to Toronto with Michael Farber, who covers the NHL for Sports Illustrated, and he said something that has always stuck with me. For my money, Farber is about as good of a writer as you will find and for those of you who don't appreciate hockey, he also writes about baseball. In fact, his was the cover story during Jeff Francoeur's rookie season with the Braves that proclaimed Francoeur "The Natural."
But I digress. I'm recalling a point that Farber made in our conversation about the uniqueness of cities. An American ex-patriot who lives in Montreal, Farber said he liked Nashville and that the Music City, like Quebec City when it still had a team in the NHL, were like no other cities in the NHL. When you woke up in the morning, you knew that you were somewhere unmistakably distinctive. For the most part, the rest of the NHL cities were alike, he reasoned.
In a similar way, I'm guessing that the atmosphere that the Falcons will face tonight in the Superdome is about as unique you will find. The Saints are 6-0 and if the statistic that I heard on the radio earlier today is correct, they have set a record for the most points scored through the first six games of a season in NFL history. The Saints are a beleaguered franchise, never having earned a berth in the Super Bowl, and their passionate fan base yearns for a winner with all the pain of the blues that have been played for decades in that musical city. I' m guessing that Saints fans will be whipped up into a frenzy tonight when it's time for kickoff, as they host their arch-rivals in the Falcons.
There aren't many Falcons left who played for the team on that famous -- or, perhaps, infamous from the Falcons' perspective -- night on Sept. 25, 2006, the last time the Falcons played the Saints on Monday Night Football. Most significantly, that night also was the first football game played in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated it. I believe the only two players left on the roster are center Todd McClure and wide receiver Brian Finneran. In an interesting twist of fate, Falcons running back Aaron Stecker, signed last week, played that night for the Saints.
"It's unbelievable, man, I think one of the loudest places I ever played in was there right after Katrina," said McClure, a Louisiana native who played at LSU. "First game back and it was deafening loud. It's hard to hear and I know a Monday night atmosphere is going to be pretty close to that level. I think the only way to silence that crowd is to get some momentum early and get some points on the board because if they get rolling it'll be nonstop. They'll have all day to be on Bourbon Street and get all liquored up. To be ready for, what is it, 7:30 down there?"
Finneran did not play that night when the Saints downed the Falcons 23-3 en route to an NFC South title because he was injured. But he was there.
"It was us against the world," he said. "It's a little different. With them being undefeated and rolling right now and doing all the right things, the fans will fill that place up again and it'll be super loud, so I wouldn't expect anything less than that game we had in 2006. It'll be loud."
McClure said that '06 atmosphere was special and it would be difficult to equal that tonight.
"Man, I think that's tough to top," he said. "We had the whole world against us that game. But they're having a great season and their fan support is there. Everyone's jumped on the bandwagon and there won't be an empty seat in the house, I bet that. It's going to be a good atmosphere, a fun atmosphere to play in, and as long as we can handle the noise and be good on our cadence and our recognition of their defensive front, I think we'll be fine."
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, a Port Arthur, Tex., native who is at least from that neck of the woods, if not from Louisiana itself, described how he thought it would be on a more visceral level.
"It's going to be more than we can even be imagine," he said. "Monday Night Football, it's going to be rockin''. "
Stecker, the newest Falcon who was still getting used to referring to his team in the first person plural, had one of the best takes on the rivalry.
"It's going to be crazy," he said. "I know how it was when we first came back to the 'dome in 2006 when we played Atlanta. It won't be quite like that. They're on a roll and the fans, they love their team, and especially knowing they're playing real well. They're 6-0. it's going to be loud in there and when the crowd gets into it. It's going to be hard to hear. I know it's going to be a hostile environment. I played there so I know what's going to go on and like I said, Atlanta has a good team, has weapons, and it's the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to come out with the 'W'...
"Every time we played Atlanta there's always an extra emphasis on the little things. In the beginning of the week, there was always talk of 'This is the Atlanta Falcons.' It's kind of like how everybody knows Green Bay and Chicago play. There's just something there. If you want to get two wins during the year, you want to get them – when I was with the Saints, it was against Atlanta. So now that I'm here, hopefully we get the two wins against the Saints."