Editor's note: The is the second of a six-part series on the Falcons and the genesis of their NFC South rivalries with the Saints, Panthers and Buccaneers.
The first game between Atlanta and New Orleans was contentious, physical and highly anticipated. 50 years later, not much has changed.
Falcons rivalry series
- Against Panthers: How the ‘I-85 Rivalry’ began
We have over half a century's worth of evidence that the Falcons-Saints rivalry is one of the NFL's very best, but that was clear from the onset.
Bob Hertzel, who covered that first Falcons-Saints matchup for the Atlanta Journal, summed it up best.
"A traditional rivalry, perhaps the most spirited in all of professional football, was born Sunday afternoon in the Sugar Bowl following one of the most nerve-wracking, controversial and surprising hours in the 1967 National Football League season," Hertzel wrote after the game.
The NFL comes to Dixie and a rivalry is born
In the late '60s, the NFL was growing. The league intended to add two expansion teams to its ranks for the 1967, but those plans were altered due to competition with the AFL for the creation of a franchise in Atlanta. That competition led to the NFL adding the Atlanta Falcons one year earlier in 1966, creating an odd number of teams (15) in the league.
One year later that problem was remedied when the NFL added its second planned franchise to its ranks, the New Orleans Saints. Even from the very first plans of their creation, the Saints and Falcons were linked.
The Falcons and Saints were the first two NFL teams located in the Southeast, and although they didn't begin their existence as division rivals, they were undoubtedly geographical rivals. Beginning in 1970, the Falcons and Saints were placed in the NFC West alongside the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers.
Not only did that ensure they were perpetually at the bottom of the division, as the Rams and 49ers would be contenders for much of the coming decades, but the Falcons-Saints game was the only division game where travel was feasible for a majority of the fans involved.
Although thrust into national prominence over the last decade, the Falcons-Saints rivalry is an incredibly intimate affair.
Those with intense investment in this rivalry don't care about outside validation. When it comes to these two teams, nothing matters exception winning. If that goal is met, there is lasting euphoria. And if not, bitter sadness and frustration intensified only by the gloating heard across the Mississippi River.
Right from the beginning, that proximity and status as "new kid on the block" fostered a sibling rivalry between the Falcons and Saints that blossomed into pure contempt. That mentality wasn't just between the teams but the players, themselves.
A sellout crowd watches the brutal battle for the Dixie title
The very first time the Falcons and Saints met on a football field occurred in the 1967 preseason, where New Orleans emerged with a 27-14 victory against Atlanta. The first meaningful game between these two teams occurred later that year, on Nov. 26, to be precise.
When recalling that first regular-season meeting between the two teams, former Falcons cornerback Ken Reaves remembered the physicality of the game above all else.
"It was a contentious matchup and everybody was up for it because it was two of the Southeastern teams finally coming together," Reaves said. "We had a lot of player conflict. I used to have a little battle going with [Saints receiver] Danny Abramowicz. It was a real physical game. Very, very physical, hard played. And I remember there were a lot of individual battles and I was in most of them."
The passion surrounding college football in the South is difficult to replicate, but that's exactly what this new NFL rivalry did as a massive sellout crowd of 83,437 screaming fans packed into Tulane Stadium to watch the 1-8-1 Falcons take on the 1-9 Saints.
"Because we were two of the youngest teams in the league and we were just trying to establish ourselves the media really played up the fact that they were so close to us," said Reaves. "It was a really highly competitive game. It was almost like a college game because it was two young teams with young players. Very aggressive."
Aggressive is a perfect description of the first Dixie championship, where reports describe a game in which numerous fights broke out and both sidelines were heated, believing to have been cheated by the referee's calls. Familiarity also played into that aggression.
The Falcons had five ex-Saints on their team for that game, four of which were starting, while New Orleans had three former Atlanta players and was led by Tom Fears, who served as Atlanta's offensive coordinator just the year prior under coach Norb Hecker.
These two teams weren't just neighbors, they were closer to brothers taking up arms against one another. That familiarity kicked off this rivalry with a bang that was clear from the very beginning.
A tale of two halves leaves the Falcons heartbroken
The spirited nature of the afternoon only intensified as the game progressed into a nail-biter.
Atlanta jumped out to a quick 21-3 lead on the road, similar to what it did in its preseason meeting with New Orleans.
Running back Junior Coffey, the Falcons leading rusher that day with 75 yards, scored the first touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run. Atlanta then added to its lead with a pair of touchdown passes. The first, a 32-yard pass from running back Perry Lee Johnson, his lone pass of the game, to receiver Tommy McDonald. The second, a 5-yard strike from quarterback Randy Johnson to tight end Bill Martin.
"The pass was underthrown," McDonald told the Atlanta Journal after the game. "I just reached around the defender, tipped the ball over his head, turned and caught the pass. I figured he'd just stand and wait for the ball. A guy my size can't outjump them, so I've got to outfox 'em."
The Falcons looked poised to carry that lead into halftime, until the Saints orchestrated a touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter, cutting into the deficit with a 7-yard pass from quarterback Gary Cuozzo to tight end Kent Kramer.
That drive very nearly ended with the Falcons adding yet even more momentum in the first half. Reaves, who entered that game ranked second in the NFL in interceptions with seven, had a golden opportunity at another pick at the 10-yard line that would have prevented the Saints' first touchdown drive.
But the Saints did score just before halftime, and they then executed the same game plan that helped them come back against the Falcons in the preseason. In the second half, the Saints came out with Billy Kilmer as their quarterback instead of Cuozzo.
"I remembered the job Billy did against the Falcons in the exhibition game and I knew we needed a couple of quick scores," Fears told Will Peneguy of The Times-Picayune. "Billy's a great inspirational player and I figured he could get the job done on short order."
Kilmer did just that for the Saints, helping them score 10 straight points after halftime and cutting the Falcons' lead to 21-20. Another field goal by Atlanta gave the Falcons a 24-20 lead, but controversy lay ahead.
Controversy deepens the divide between the Falcons and Saints
In the closing minutes of the game, the Saints, in front of a desperate home crowd, marched down the field intent on beating their rivals. The Falcons' defense bent, but ultimately held firm with their heels on the goal line.
With under a minute left in the game, the Falcons had forced the Saints into a fourth down. Reaves, true to his reputation, stepped in front of Kilmer's fourth-down pass and picked it off to secure a victory for Atlanta. Or at least he would have had a referee not called a pass interference on Falcons' linebacker Jerry Richardson.
"The official said I interfered and that's his opinion, but I don't think I did," Richardson told Al Thomy of The Atlanta Constitution after the game. "I hit Flea Roberts before the ball was released, then saw the ball come out of the backfield. But he didn't see it that way."
The pass-interference call provided the Saints with a new set of downs at the 7-yard line, and it didn't take long for Kilmer to hit Kramer for the winning touchdown.
In typical Falcons-Saints fashion, that controversy at the end immediately gave life to intense emotion.
"What can you do when a guy admits he blew a couple of calls," Hecker told The Atlanta Constitution after the game. "That's too bad but they really hurt us.
"Ron Rector, I thought, played a tremendous game, as did Junior Coffey and the others. They played some real football out there today. I'll have to say the result of this game is my biggest disappointment as a football coach."
In the home team's locker room, the gloating began in earnest.
"Maybe, we should play against Atlanta all 14 games," Kilmer told the Atlanta Journal.
"This was our Super Bowl and we knew at the start of the second half that we were going to win," boasted guard Eli Strand to the Atlanta Journal.
But the best summation of how intensely the Falcons-Saints rivalry began came from New Orleans running back Ernie Wheelwright, who had spent the previous season and portion of the 1967 season in Atlanta before being traded. Against his former team, the man they called "The Wheel" led all Saints players with 82 total yards of offense and was as happy as anyone to get the victory.
"Man, I've got to be happy after this one," Wheelwright told The Times-Picayune. "There's no team I'd rather beat. [Falcons linebacker] Ralph Heck told me he was going to burn down my night club in Atlanta before I get back."
The best rivalries in sports aren't built in the spotlight or spun out of media narrative. They are created through years of intense and bitter emotion, an exasperation to not only beat the other team and its fans but to remind them of that victory unceasingly.
Make no mistake, the Falcons-Saints rivalry is among the very best sports has to offer, and it fits the description to a T.