Super Bowl XLVII will be in New Orleans, but nothing says the Atlanta Falcons have to beat the Saints to qualify. Still, it would be nice for the Falcons’ ego if, just once, they could exit a game against their nemesis without having to hear the crowing that emanates from the other side.
The Saints are reviled throughout the NFL, but nowhere are they as hated as within the red-brick building at 4400 Falcon Parkway, Flowery Branch. In December 2010 some Saints defenders posed on the Falcons’ logo after winning at the Georgia Dome. Last December the Saints allowed Drew Brees to keep throwing at the end of a rout to break Dan Marino’s yardage record.
The Falcons weren’t happy, and many among them wanted to draw the Saints in Round 1 of the playoffs. (They got the Giants instead. And lost 24-2.) Said linebacker Curtis Lofton: “I kind of hoped we’d go back to New Orleans, especially with the way they did us.”
Today Lofton is a Saint, and this week he told Atlanta reporters the Saints don’t view this longstanding series as a rivalry but as “a divisional game.” And maybe they do. Is it really a rivalry when one side wins all the time?
Since Sean Payton, the coach now sitting out a year’s suspension, arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have beaten the Falcons 11 times in 13 meetings. Since Mike Smith became the Falcons’ coach in 2008, nearly one-third of his regular-season losses – seven of the 22, to be exact – have come against the Saints.
Being a coach, Smith wants to win every quarter of every game, but he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t see Thursday night’s game against the Saints as a chance to get something right after getting so many things. Almost every tack Smitty has taken against New Orleans has gone bust, and not all of them have been poor choices.
Twice he tried punting late while behind, and twice he saw Drew Brees run out the clock. Last year he tried going for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime and saw Michael Turner halted. Earlier this month Smith didn’t go for two when trailing by six points, didn’t for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal with his team trailing by four, and finally he saw the Falcons fail three times inside the Saints’ 2.
All losses to the Saints are galling, but for the Falcons the most recent one was especially egregious. It ended any thought of an undefeated season, and it came against a Saints’ team that was, on the record, nothing special. And afterward they had to hear linebacker Scott Shanle describe them as “classless” – as we know, the team that paid bounties to injure opponents is renowned for its geniality – because Sean Weatherspoon and Jonathan Babineaux were taunting Lofton in warmups.
(Then again, Roddy White wasn’t exactly the essence of grace afterward, saying the Falcons “gave” the Saints the game.)
Shanle also described the Falcons as the Saints’ “little brothers,” and here again we note: In football as in journalism, truth is the ultimate defense. The Saints have ruled this (non-)rivalry; the Falcons haven’t come close to holding up their end. But another encounter brings another chance, and it would behoove the Falcons to seize this one.
Not because their ultimate fate rides on this game. They’ll be in the playoffs, and the Saints probably won’t. But a team that has visions of a championship needs to believe it can climb every mountain, not just selected ones. It has long been my belief that the loss to New Orleans two days after Christmas in 2010 was a precursor to the epic playoff flop against the Packers three weeks later, when the top-seeded Falcons were beaten 48-21. Both the Saints, who were defending champs, and the Packers, who would become champs, brought championship intensity to the Dome. The home side brought something less.
Eleven games in, the 2012 season bears more than a passing resemblance to 2010. As Chase Stuart of Football Perspective wrote on the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog this week: “In 2010, Atlanta raced to a 10-2 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by seven or fewer points … This season, Atlanta has raced to a 10-1 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by seven or fewer points.”
Now as then, a lot of folks are waiting for the Falcons to flop. The 2010 team obliged. This one might not. These Falcons have taken some significant steps — beating Denver and Dallas in prime time, ending 24 years of futility in Philadelphia, dousing the hot Buccaneers on Sunday — and they can take another Thursday night. They can stomp the Saints. They can stop being the little brother. They can make another deposit in their bank of self-esteem.
By Mark Bradley