Saints have rivalry to be appreciated
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Former Saints and Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert is an expert on perhaps the most under-appreciated rivalry in the National Football League.
The native of Cut Off, La., played eight seasons (1985-1992) for the Saints and four seasons (1993-1996) for the Falcons, and has seen the rivalry from both sides of the field.
Unlike several other NFL rivalries, the Saints-Falcons match-up, is not rooted in sheer hate or nastiness.
"Overall, we are Southern gentlemen," Hebert said. "It might be all in fun. You can talk smack about the opposing team, but basically we are going to tailgate and party. We'll have a good time and not take it to that level."
The proximity of the cities plays a part in the rivalry as busloads of fans usually make the trip from either city to the games. On Monday night, likely hundreds of New Orleans fans will disembark along Northside Drive and do the second-line parade dance down the street and into the Georgia Dome.
"There are a lot of connections, especially in the African-American community, between New Orleans and Atlanta," Hebert said. "People that are from New Orleans have moved to Atlanta for business opportunities. It's kind of friendly type of rivalry, more for bragging rights."
When the two teams play for the 83rd time in the regular season at 8:30 p.m. on Monday night at the Georgia Dome, the NFC South title and playoff seeding will be on the line.
The Falcons hold a 45-37 edge and defeated the Saints in their only postseason match-up in 1991.
Traditionally, of course, there wasn't much on the line as both franchises struggled for decades to be competitive.
"All you were playing for was pride," said David Archer, a Falcons quarterback from 1984 to 1987.
The two teams were founded a year apart and played their first game on Nov. 26, 1967, at Tulane Stadium. The Saints won 27-24. The Falcons went on to win the next nine games.
Some of those battles for pride were fierce.
"I can remember when I first came to the Saints and the Saints had never had a winning season," Hebert said. "The first time that we won was in 1987, we won nine games in a row and we finished 12-3. Even before that ... fans used to tell me, ‘You have to beat the Falcons, twice, at least.'"
Hebert was one of the first big-name players to cross enemy lines in 1993. Former Saints kicker Morten Andersen switched sides in 1995 and former New Orleans wide receiver Joe Horn joined the Falcons in 2007. Andersen holds the distinction of being the leading all-time scorer for both franchises.
"When I went to the Falcons, I looked at it like I was a mercenary," Hebert said. "Like a hired gun."
Former Falcons coach Leeman Bennett owned the Saints. He posted a 9-2 record in the rivalry, while winning two division titles from 1977 to 1982.
"It was always a big game for us and I think the reason for that was that it was two Southern cities with both of them trying to get their franchises going," Bennett said. "The fans would always come to Atlanta and the Atlanta fans always liked to go to New Orleans. That really helped to create that rivalry."
With the Falcons competitive during Bennett's years, the rivalry had a bully.
"Fortunately, we won most of the time and we probably were a little bit more festive than the New Orleans fans," Bennett said. "It was really an outstanding rivalry at that time."
The highlight was the "Big Ben Right" play that quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw against the Saints. On Nov. 12, 1978, Bartkowski completed a 57-yard pass to Alfred Jenkins as time expired to beat the Saints, 20-17. The pass was tipped Wallace Francis.
"Let's just say that luck was in our favor more times than not when we launched that thing up," Bartkowski said. "It becomes more of a beach volleyball game than a football game at that point. We had some success against those guys doing that."
For Bartkowski, who was the Falcons quarterback from 1975 to 1985, the Saints' rivalry was pretty fierce.
"It didn't seem to matter what the records were when we played those guys," Bartkowski said. "The truth is that it was just an all-out war when we played those games."
Former center Jeff Van Note played in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s against the Saints. Overall, Van Note played in 33 games against the Saints.
"The Saints, you couldn't wait to play them and beat them," Van Note said. "I'm sure if you talked to Bart he mentioned the 20-17 games. Those were great wins there, where we snatched victory from them."
The fans remain a big part of the rivalry, appreciated by the players.
"I even enjoyed the Saints fans here snaking through concourses and down the tunnels singing that chant after they'd won here, once," Van Note said. "I didn't enjoy that they won, but it was kind of interesting to see the fans reaction to a victory."
Former Falcons running back Gerald Riggs has his favorite memory of the rivalry.
"It was always pretty intense and pretty physical," Riggs said. "I remember [Pat] Swilling, Rickey Jackson, Vaughn Johnson and Sam Mills. I remember their defenses as being very, very good and very, very physical."
The rivalry continued to thrive after realignment. Both teams were moved from the NFC West to the newly created NFC South in 2002. The rivalry has come a long way from its humble beginnings with two expansion franchises.
On Monday night, the Saints, as defending Super Bowl champions, will face the Falcons, who are 12-2 and can win the NFC South title and earn the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"Since I've been here, this game has always been played at a different level," said Falcons center Todd McClure, a 12-year veteran who played at Louisiana State. "The fans seem to get into it. It's just a special rivalry."
Falcons, Saints have rivalry to be appreciated *| ajc.com
The NFC South is finally at the point where other fans are watching to see some very competitive games. Always has been The NFC East with the highly televised games and all the media hype. We still have a long way to go but the rivalries are good. Hey at least we are in the position to be someones rival or arch enemy.
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