ATLANTA — Finally, one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries has two teams that are worthy of all that passion.
For much of the past four decades, the fans of Atlanta and New Orleans got fired up when their teams met — but hardly anyone else paid attention.
That’s all changed now. The Saints (10-4) are the defending Super Bowl champions and closing in on a return trip to the playoffs. The Falcons (12-2) have the best record in the NFC and their sights on home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Heading into a crucial game Monday night, the teams already have combined for their most wins ever in the same season.
"It’s a really good time to be a Falcons fan. It’s a really good time to be a Saints fan," said retired NFL kicker Morten Andersen, who played for both teams and now lives in Atlanta. "All you can say is, ‘Merry Christmas!’ It should be a great game."
These teams are linked by more than just proximity (about a seven-hour drive). They entered the NFL one year apart, the Falcons in 1966, the Saints following in 1967. They have been in the same division since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, giving them home-and-home games each year.
When the Saints head north to face the Falcons, thousands of fans from the Big Easy usually descend on the A-T-L. The situation is reversed when the teams play in New Orleans, giving Atlantans an excuse to party on Bourbon Street.
The strong bond between the two cities was strengthened further by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and resulted in thousands of people evacuating to Atlanta in search of shelter. Many decided to stay rather than return to their battered hometown.
The teams have been linked by their misery on the field. New Orleans went 20 years before its first winning season. Atlanta’s history isn’t much better— an occasional playoff appearance overwhelmed by one dismal year after another.