For those of you not well-versed in the history of the Saints-Falcons rivalry, it wasn’t until the 1978 season that it really “took off” and blossomed into what it has become today in 2018.
Which is now 40 years worth of “trash talking” in the war of words between Saints fans (a,k.a., the “Who Dat Nation”) and Falcons fans (a.k.a.. “The Brotherhood”).
And since that time, the two teams’ hatred for one another that has spanned not only decades in passage of time, but even whole generations of fans — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and even Grandparents and their Grandchildren — on both sides.
The relationship between the two opposing fan-bases has been shaped by a series of events in the 50 plus years that the rivalry has been in existence.
Watershed moments such as the 62 to 7 ‘beat down’ of the Saints by the Falcons at their home inside the old Tulane Stadium, back in 1973. As the much older Saints fans who attended games in that era will recall, it was a game in which the visiting Atlanta squad blatantly “ran up the score”.
And who can forget names from both of the franchises such as Billy Kilmer, Ken Reaves, Archie Manning, Steve Bartowski, Chuck Muncie, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Tony Galbreath, “Neon” Deion Sanders, Wes Chandler, Willie Andrews, Rickey Jackson, Chris Miller, Pat Swilling, Andre “Bad Moon” Rison, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Michael Vick, Bum Phillips, Leeman Bennett, Jim Mora, and Jerry Glanville, to just name a handful?
That’s not even mentioning players that were both loved and hated by fans of the two respective franchises at one time or another, because they played for both teams at some point.
Saints fans are STILL mad over ex-Black and Gold legends Bobby Hebert and Morten Andersen having spent part of their NFL careers in Atlanta.
But as some of the persons well-versed in the rivalry’s long history will quickly tell you: it wasn’t until the events that took place between the two teams during the 1978 season, that really set the tone of the rivalry and the relationship between the two teams and their fans in modern day 2018.
That’s because it wasn’t until that 1978 season that either the Saints or Falcons were EVER even considered “good enough” to contend for a spot in the NFL Playoffs, to begin with.
Prior to 1978, the Saints franchise was still considered one of the League’s very WORST teams; and they had 11 straight losing seasons coming into 1978 and hadn’t even had more than 5 wins in any of those 11 losing seasons as the franchise entered its 12th season that year.
Meanwhile, Atlanta was in their 13th season; and although they did have one winning season (9-5 in 1973), they still hadn’t ever made the Playoffs.
But that all of that would soon change after the Saints fired head coach Hank Stram in March of 1978 over the Saints’ dismal performance during the 1977 season, which included an unthinkable 33-14 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who at the time were (0-26) after joining the League as an expansion team.
The Saints became the butt of jokes LEAGUE-WIDE for that loss to the Buccaneers, and it cost Stram — who was an NFL coaching legend — his job as the team finished with a (3-11) record.
Then Saints owner John Mecom, Jr., after listening to some advice from other owners, hired Stram’s linebacker coach and former San Francisco 49ers head coach Dick Nolan to take over the Saints team in time for the 1978 season.
Nolan had previously been a head coach in San Francisco, where he guided the 49ers for eight seasons from 1968 through 1975; and was noted for developing the defense and taking the team to three straight NFC West division titles (1970–72), twice losing in the NFC Championship Game (1970–71) and just barely missing out making the Super Bowl.
Stram had hired him almost immediately after Nolan was fired by the 49ers at the end of the 1975 season (in time for Stram’s first year in New Orleans in 1976), and wanted Nolan to help the Saints organization build a defense like the one he had at San Francisco.
Now just a little over 2 years later, Nolan had taken Stram’s job.
To this day, there’s no logical explanation to explain why the Saints team suddenly started to win more games under Nolan that they had under Stram.
A lot has to do with the fact that Stram was a tough disciplinarian who forced the team to endure 3-a-day full-padded workouts in Training Camp, and was a task-master with regard to how his players executed his schemes.
To say he was NOT well-liked by most of his players, is a fair assessment.
Nolan on the other hand having been a former player himself, was down to earth and the players LOVED him. That lax and loose relationship with the team’s players would later come back to bite Nolan hard a few years later, but in 1978 the team was rejuvenated by Stram’s departure and were suddenly competitive in EVERY game that year.
Which brings us finally to why the 1978 season centered around the Saints-Falcons rivalry.
November 12th, 1978.
A date that lives on almost 40 years later, in Saints “infamy”.
The Saints went into the game with a (5-5) record, while the Falcons, who had won 4 straight games coming in to that game that day, were (6-4).
Leading, 17-13, late in the fourth quarter, the Saints couldn’t put the game away, and were forced to punt, giving the Falcons only :19 seconds to go 57 yards.
The Falcons lined up with receivers Wallace Francis, Alfred Jenkins and Alfred Jackson off to the right, and then quarterback Steve Bartkowski threw it up for grabs.
Francis tipped the ball right into the waiting hands of Jackson, who proceeded to run into the end zone for the game-winning score, giving them an eventual 20-17 win, and leaving the 72,000 fans at the Superdome in total shock.
The play became known as “Big Ben Right” (the right side of the formation where all of the receivers had lined up), or years later just “Big Ben”.
The Saints would then get blown out at Dallas the following week to fall to (5-6), but had a chance to even their record at (6-6) when they traveled to Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta to play the Falcons for the 2nd time in 3 weeks.
Just like their game in New Orleans two weeks earlier, the defenses took over in the 3rd quarter as the Saints got the only points of the third quarter with an 18-yard field goal by Steve Mike-Mayer to extend their lead to 17-10.
The Falcons could not trim the lead for much of the second half as they drove to inside the Saints’ 20-yard-line twice, only to come with zero points as the Saints’ defense forced a fumble and intercepted a Bartkowski pass to end the scoring threats by Atlanta.
Late in the 4th quarter, the Falcons trailed 17-13 and were at their own 28-yard-line with 53 seconds left and no timeouts left at their disposal.
Bartkowski went to the no-huddle offense and after completing three out of four passes, he had the Falcons at the Saints’ 34-yard-line with 23 seconds remaining.
A catch by the previous game’s hero and Falcons WR Alfred Jackson was good for 9 yards on the very next play and set up a 3rd-and-1 from the 25-yard-line; and with 16 seconds left on the clock Bartkowski took another shot for the end zone.
Bartkowski launched a pass toward the left corner of the end zone where his receivers, Dennis Pearson and Bill Ryckman, were waiting along with three Saints defenders.
As the ball came down, the players got together in a scrum and when it was all said and done, Saints defensive back Ralph McGill had come away with the interception seemingly to seal the victory for New Orleans and would have evened their record at (6-6).
But a flag was thrown by official Grover Klemmer and after talking it over with the rest of his crew, the referees called for Saints defensive back Maurice Spencer for pass interference giving the Falcons a 1st-and-goal from the one-yard-line with 10 seconds to go.
With new found life, Bartkowski took the snap, rolled out to his right, and found tight end Jim Mitchell wide open in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with five seconds to go — which gave Atlanta another 20-17 victory over the Saints.
The two improbable and unbelievable last-second wins by the Falcons proved to be the difference between Atlanta and the Saints when it came to a NFC Playoff spot.
New Orleans finished 1978 with an overall record of (7-9), including the 2 excruciating back-to-back losses to Atlanta, who went (9-7), and advanced to the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Meaning that had the Saints not suffered either of those two unbelievable losses in a span of 3 weeks to the Falcons, it would have been the Saints — and not the Falcons — who would have been (9-7) and faced Philadelphia (who Atlanta beat 14-13) in the 1978 Wild Card game.
So as you can imagine, the cauldron in the pot slowly began to bubble up and eventually come to a boil as the Saints and their fans had an entire off-season to think about how they had unjustly robbed of their first-ever trip to the Playoffs.
Coincidentally from MY own personal perspective, this is the year (1978) in which this heated arch-rivalry TRULY began.
And I was there as an 11-year old kid growing up in suburban New Orleans (Harahan) and a passionately loyal young Saints fan; and long before I ever thought about becoming a sports writer all of these years later writing articles like the one that you’re reading right now.
There are MANY more stories that I could tell about this rivalry that I have personally have either seen or been an active participant in, since that 1978 season when it all began (right at 40 years ago, now).
Believe me when I tell you this, however; which is that the one common denominator has always been the ‘trash talk’ that has gone down between these fan bases — some of it good-natured, and at other times DOWNRIGHT VENOMOUS.
The events of 1978 inspired the “trash talk” that you see today, because it signaled a new level of acrimony in the relationship between the respective fan-bases and sparked a new level of dislike and even hatred between the two “sides” that would last for decades. And this was long before Social Media and the Internet,
— WHO DAT Cool Breesy⚜ (@Steve2duhO) September 17, 2018
And now some 40 seasons later, you have things such as the Falcons’ monumental collapse in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots 2 years ago, and last season’s Saints heart-breaking loss to Minnesota following Marcus Williams‘ missed tackle on Vikings WR Stefan Diggs, that the two opposing sides use to “stick it” to one another.
For Saints fans, 28 to 3 is a way to “stick it” to Falcons fans, as a way to constantly remind them of the fact that they managed to squander a 25 point lead in Super Bowl 51 just a few short months ago, with 2 minutes and 12 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Long story short: the Falcons were only 17 minutes away from winning their first ever World Championship in their team’s 52-year history — but instead will now go down in NFL and Professional Sports history as having committed the BIGGEST “CHOKE JOB” EVER.
For Falcons fans, it’s a constant reminder of the agony they experienced, while watching their team lose a game that they should have — by all accounts — won with virtual ease. And not just any game mind you, but the Super Bowl itself.
But to have their faces “rubbed in it” by Saints fans, their long-rime hated arch-rivals, has now triggered a new level of animosity between the fan-bases that’s been exaggerated through the mediums and means of Social Media.
Saints fans have felt since that time that they now currently hold the upper hand in the ultimate trash talk “bragging rights”; thanks to the Falcons’ collapse of monumental proportions,
— Bryan (@Public_B_Enemy) September 18, 2018
— Christina Watkins (@CWatkinsWDSU) September 18, 2018
The Falcons fans “Brotherhood” has responded in kind however by attempting to portray the Saints’ heart-breaking loss in the NFC Divisional Playoffs to the Vikings and the missed tackle by Williams against Diggs, as an equally bad result for New Orleans as their loss to the Patriots.
Amazingly, they’re equating the Saints’ elimination from the Playoffs to losing a 20-plus point lead in the Super Bowl. However, I’m quite certain that I don’t need to point out the flaw in their twisted sense of logic.
The internet is truly undefeated!!! 😂😂😂😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/JPBXAZi0IV
— Shannon ✊🏾 (@ATLFalconGirl) January 15, 2018
— ATL All Day Jordan F.I.L.A. (@jordan23atl) January 15, 2018
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the disparity, given that the Falcons actually had a WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP right in their hands and BLEW IT.
The ultimate “measuring stick” of success for any NFL franchise is the amount of World Championships won; and a look at the current Super Bowl win-loss records shows: New Orleans 1-0, Atlanta 0-2 (the Falcons lost their previous Super Bowl back in 1999, when they were thrashed by John Elway and the Denver Broncos following the 1998 season).
Falcons fans don’t have a Super Bowl win by their team to brag on, which is why they normally have to rely on a series of worn-out “insults” to throw back at Saints fans, in order to retaliate for the 28-3 jokes.
Among their other favorites besides the Marcus Williams-Vikings memes: reminding Saints fans that the team finished 7-9 for 3 straight seasons recently (2014-2016), the Bountygate controversy from 2012, or even a topic considered “off-limits” by Saints fans: the devastation of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina over 13 years ago.
However, as Saints fans have been quick to point out: no single insult used by a Falcons fan in retaliation against a Saints fan, can equal or surpass the stigma of blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl.
If nothing else, Falcons fans’ attempts to deflect from the 28 to 3 stigma, even borders on the downright comical.
Case in point: their never-ending narrative from Falcons fans that the NFL literally “gave” the Saints a win in their only Super Bowl, by somehow managing to convince the Indianapolis Colts and their QB at the time, the ultra-competitive Peyton Manning, to PURPOSELY LOSE to New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV (and yes, I know that sounds incredibly far-fetched and approaches stupidity).
Falcons fans’ conspiracy theory that the NFL simply decided to hand over or “give” the Saints a Super Bowl win following that 2009 season just might be the most ridiculous thing that you will ever hear used in an argument.
If that were the actual case, why then did the NFL wait 3 more years to do it, when they simply could have done it after the 2006 season?
2006 was the year right after Katrina, the first season under then-new head coach Sean Payton and then-new starting QB Drew Brees. The Saints won the NFC South division title that year with a 10-6 record, and advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears.
If there really was some “conspiracy” at hand, would the League have let the Bears blow out the Saints in the NFC Championship Game that day?
Wouldn’t they have “given” the Saints the win so that they could then go on to win the Super Bowl after just one year removed from Katrina?
Obviously there isn’t a whole lot of forethought or logic that’s used in such a ridiculous statement, although it probably isn’t all that far-fetched to say that it’s what you should expect in a rivalry like this one.
The rivalry between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons fan-bases has always been a contentious one.
There’s been plenty of ‘hate’ to go around for supporters on both sides now for many, many years.
And this season just so happens to mark 40 years worth of it, as a matter of fact.
The best rivalries in sports aren’t built on any sort of false narrative or “click bait” material that are put out at times by members of the media covering the League.
But they are created through decades of pure and natural human emotion and a deep sense of pride, loyalty, and devotion to one’s region, city, and community; and the overwhelming desire to show fans from the other team that your favorite team is superior to theirs, both on the field and off of it.
Make no mistake, the Falcons-Saints rivalry is among the very the very best in all of Professional Sports; and some would even argue that it’s THE BEST.
So when the Saints travel to Atlanta this Sunday and face the Falcons for the 99th time in team history and try to add a win to the all-time series in which the Falcons currently lead by a tally of 52-46, you had better believe that the back-and-forth will once again reach a level of intense animosity that only this particular rivalry can deliver.