A Head-to-Head History: The Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints

 The Falcons and Saints joined the NFL a year apart during the transitional, pre-merger phase of the league. Prior to Atlanta joining in 1966 and New Orleans in 1967, the southernmost team on the coast had been in Washington DC. They became natural rivals, as bus loads of fans venture on seven-hour road trip between the cities when they play one another. A further non-geographic bond is the fact that the franchises share the same all-time leading scorer - Morten Andersen (New Orleans 1982 - 1994, 1,318 points; Atlanta 1995 - 2000, 2006 - 2007; 806 points.)

Although they currently reside in the NFC South Division, the Dixie Rivalry began in the post-merger NFL's NFC West in 1970. They usually battled with one another to stay out of the division's basement, as the Rams and 49'ers more often that not finished at the top. Prior to 1970 the Falcons resided in the NFL Coastal Division while the Saints rotated between the Capital and Century Divisions.

Like most expansion teams, the Falcons and Saints struggled on the field with roster mostly stocked with young players and veteran cast-offs, as there were no quick fixes available via free agency. The first meeting between the teams took place in Week 11 of the 1967 season, where the 1-8-1 Falcons visited the 1-9 Saints in Tulane Stadium. Billy Kilmer lead New Orleans on a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter for a 24-20 win. Two minute drives and comeback victories would become a recurring theme over the years.

That was not the case in 1973 though. In the midst of a nine-game win streak against their Southern rivals, the Falcons set a team record for points in a remarkable one-sided rout. After the end of a 0-0 first quarter, Atlanta went on a scoring rampage that saw them rack up 62 points. The Falcon offense was unstoppable, moving the chains with 32 first downs on the strength of 218 rushing yards, while the Saints offense was error prone, turning the ball over eight times, including five interceptions by Archie Manning.

The balance of the 70's saw the rivalry achieve competitive balance, with many of the signature moments occurring in New Orleans Super Dome. In 1978 Atlanta became the first of the two teams to qualify for the post season, and a signature win over the Saints in November helped them get there. The 5-5 Saints carried a 17-6 late into the fourth quarter against the 6-4 Falcons. Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski lead the Falcons on a touchdown drive that closed the gap to 17-13 with 0:57 on the clock. After recovering the attempted on-sides kick, New Orleans attempted to run out the clock. Coach Dick Nolan elected to run a play on fourth-and-two, but halfback Chuck Muncie was stopped short of the line to gain and the Atlanta offense came back onto the field with 19 seconds left. Bartkowski lined up under center with three receivers split out wide to the right of the formation. The Saints were deployed in a prevent package featuring seven defensive backs. Bartkowski heaved a desperation pass toward the end zone, where his receivers attempted to get under the pass in heavy traffic. At least a dozen hands from both teams reached up to either grab or bat the ball down, but Falcon receiver Alfred Jenkins came away with possession off a tip, avoided several defenders and crossed the goal line for the decisive and dramatic 57-yard score. The "Big Ben" play lead highlight programs across the country and the momentum seizing win not only propelled Atlanta on a playoff run, they produced a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round before losing to the eventual NFC Champion Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional playoffs.

The schedule makers didn't do the New Orleans faithful any favors by schedule a visit from Atlanta on opening day the following season. The back-and-forth shootout saw the teams combine for over 1,000 yards of offense, with stars from both teams rack up impressive offensive numbers: Muncie and Atlanta rookie William Andrews each eclipsed 160 rushing yards, Jenkins had seven catches and a touchdown for the Falcons, while Wes Chandler produced 205 yards on just six catches, including a 40-yard score on an option pass from Muncie. Late in the game, then into overtime, New Orleans rookie kicker/punter Russel Erxleben experienced the highs and lows of his dual profession. Manning lead the Saints on a late drive that was capped with Erxleben's 38-yard field goal knotting the score at 34-34 with 44 seconds remaining. Midway through the extra period, Erxleben had the ball snapped over his head in the punt formation from the New Orleans 32 yard line. He scooped it up near his own goal line, then hurried a two-handed pass under pressure into the hands of Falcon James Mayberry who scored from six yards out for the stunning 40-34 win. Atlanta finished the 1979 season a disappointing 6-10, while the Saints recovered somewhat, finishing a then franchise best 8-8.

1991 saw a reversal of fortunes in the NFC West. the Saints finished in first place at 11-5 and the Falcons qualified as a Wild Card at 10-6, marking the first time either the 49'ers or Rams were left out of the post season since 1982. Three second half lead changes were capped by Michael Haynes 61-yard touchdown pass from Chris Miller with 2:41 remaining. New Orleans took possession on their own 17, and advanced to Atlanta's 35 with 1:10 to play. Bobby Hebert's pass was intercepted by Tim McKyer, who lateraled the ball to Deion Sanders, who ran around before lateraling to Joe Fishback who finished the play with an apparent touchdown. Following instant replay, it was determined Sander's exchange with Fishback was a forward pass, disqualifying the touchdown but the Falcons retained possession and ran the clock out. The loss was especially tough for New Orleans to take. Having made the post season three of the previous four seasons, each had ended with a one-game exit without a victory. The Falcons lost the following week to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins.

Morten Andersen made one of his final game winning kicks for the Saints against his future team in 1994. The offensive game was remarkable in the fact that New Orleans was able to pull off the victory despite turning the ball over five times. the Falcons were unable to capitalize, despite churning out almost 400 yards of offense, they settled for six Norm Johnson field goals. The kicking duel was settled in the final two minutes of the game. Johnson booted a 30-yard field goal to put Atlanta ahead 32-30 with 1:44 remaining, but Andersen's fifth field goal of the day came from 39-yards out and just 0:08 left on the clock decided the outcome, 33-32.

New Orleans probably regretted letting Andersen leave via free agency following the 1994 season, as he signed with the Atlanta and was directly responsible for a Falcon sweep of the Saints in 1995. During his return to the Super Dome in September, Andersen booted four field goals, including a 21-yarder in overtime for the 24-21 Falcon win. In the December meeting at Georgia Dome, Andersen again was the deciding factor for the Falcons offense, but this time from long range. He set an NFL record with three successful attempts from 50 yards out - 51 and 55 twice - as Atlanta won 19-14.

The most poignant meeting, though albeit not the greatest game, was the Saints return to the Super Dome on September 25, 2006. After spending the 2005 season playing their "home" games at the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX and Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints returned home with a new head coach and quarterback and a 2-0 record. Atlanta was also 2-0, but were unable to match the intensity of the Saints or their fans in the raucous dome. After surrendering a touchdown on a blocked punt, the Falcons managed an Andersen field goal and nothing more. The inspired New Orleans defense dominated, yielding just 10 first downs to Atlanta while holding Michael Vick to 12-31 passing for just 137 yards. Drew Brees' debut in New Orleans was modest statistically, but he was efficient and the Saints went on to a 23-3 win, a 10-6 record and NFC South Title and a trip tot eh NFC Championship game, where they ultimately lost to the Chicago Bears. changes would soon be in store for the Falcons as well, but the groundwork had been prepared for the Saints and Falcons to finally emerge as contenders at the same time.

The meeting at the Super Dome in Week 3 was a key meeting between the two rivals. The 1-1 Saints were defending Super Bowl Champions while the Falcons were coming off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. The game featured four lead changes as quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan moved their respective offenses up and down the field. Lance Moore's 16-yard touchdown reception at the end of the third quarter gave the Saints a 21-17 lead. Ryan responded by leading Atlanta on a 10-play drive that was capped by a 22-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White to regain the lead 24-21. Following an exchange of punts, Brees guided New Orleans to a tying field goal with nine seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime. The Falcons received the kickoff and punted after three plays. Four Brees completions moved New Orleans from their own 32 to the Atlanta 11. Seemingly in safe position, the Saints elected for a 29-yard field goal attempt on first down, but Garret Hartley pulled the ball wide left despite kicking from the right hash mark. Ryan and the Falcons capitalized, methodically advancing the ball from their own 20 to the Saints 23 in 12 plays. Matt Bryant's 46-yard attempt was good for the 27-24 win. Atlanta finished atop the NFC South with a 13-3 record with New Orleans second at 11-5, however both teams lost their first post season contests.

Tonight the Falcons off look to get revenge on the Saints who handed them their first lost three weeks ago, while the Saints try to stay in the playoff hunt after a 0-4 start.


  1. Actually, the Steelers were the eventually Super Bowl champs in '78. Dallas did win the NFC, however.

    1. Thanks, fixed it. I got a little confused with my years...Dallas beat Denver in January 1978, but that was the 1977 season!

  2. You missed an opportunity IMO, earlier this season to do one of these on the Broncos-Buccaneers matchup history (two teams which for much of their history in the NFL (pre-1997) were the only orange-dominant jersey teams in the league. Of course, this year had the added nuance of the Broncos returning to an orange-dominant home jersey in their quadrennial meeting with the Bucs (who remained in their pewter, red, and black-dominated uniforms (with a touch of orange trim)...



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