ATLANTA — This isn’t your father’s Saints-Falcons rivalry.
Now the games are played for more than Southern bragging rights. There’s more on the line than a good excuse for a party.
Before Sean Payton became the New Orleans coach in 2006 and Mike Smith was hired by Atlanta in 2008, Saints-Falcons games were highlights in usually dreadful seasons. The exceptions were rare, such as when Dan Reeves took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in the 1998 season. More often the typical goal was trying to avoid last place behind the 49ers and Rams in the old NFC West.
The winner of today’s game at the Georgia Dome will claim first place in the NFC South, and that has become the norm.
Last year, the Falcons won the division with the NFC’s best record, and the Saints were a wild card. In 2009, the Saints won the division and the Super Bowl, and the Falcons were second in the NFC South.
The teams split two games last season, with each winning on the road and each game decided by three points, including the Falcons’ win in overtime. This is the first game between the teams this season. The Falcons visit New Orleans on Dec. 26.
The Falcons (5-3) will try to stretch their three-game winning streak and the Saints (6-3) hope to show they’re the team to beat in the division.
“I think our No. 1 rivalry in this division is the Falcons,” said Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. “They’re just a good team. They’re physical. The last two or three times we played them it has been a close game. So you’re going to get a three-point game, an overtime game.
“You’re going to get that when you’re playing Atlanta. It’s like Ali-Frazier. Expect 15 rounds. Somebody is going to get knocked down. Somebody is going to get up. But it’s going to be a tough one.”
From a national perspective, this might not rank with Steelers-Ravens, Packers-Bears or Patriots-Jets rivalries. For Falcons and Saints fans, this is the biggest game.
It’s also heated for the players.
The Saints celebrated on the Falcons’ midfield logo after their win at the Georgia Dome last year.
“We just don’t like each other,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “It’s just like that. There’s nothing about their team that we like. They don’t like us. It’s going to be an emotional game.”