Most players and coaches have done their best this week to avoid comparing Sunday’s showdown between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to the game the teams played the night the Dome reopened almost 13 months after Hurricane Katrina.
But no member of the Saints or Falcons can credibly deny this is the most anticipated renewal of the rivalry since the evening of Sept. 25, 2006. Some players, at least on the Saints, haven’t even tried to do such a thing.
“Sunday will have a playoff feel,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “We have had ... months to prepare for this game.”
“They don’t like us. We don’t like them,” Saints receiver Lance Moore said. “That’s what makes it so great.”
Graham’s and Moore’s sentiments are spot on. The Saints’ Sean Payton on Sunday will become the first coach to return to the sideline of a regular-season game after serving a yearlong suspension. As if that weren’t enough to crank up the hype, Payton’s first game back from his bounty scandal suspension comes at home against the Saints’ NFC South nemesis, a team he has owned since he took charge in New Orleans the year the Superdome reopened.
Even before New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV, the Falcons started becoming one of the NFL’s best teams. Their 56 wins since Mike Smith became coach in 2008 are the second-most in the league, and they’ve taken the division in two of the three seasons since New Orleans won its championship.
But the Saints could not care less about the Falcons’ achievements. Aside from the Super Bowl title the Falcons lack, Payton has beaten Atlanta 10 times and lost to them just twice.
Then, while Payton was suspended and the Saints fielded the most porous defense in NFL history, the teams split the series by winning at home.
Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette alluded to those events in a dismissive tone this week: “They came here while we had a subpar team — and we beat them,” he said. But many of the Saints’ wins have been far from easy or decisive. That only increases the likelihood that Sunday will be memorable.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said the team’s coaches have taken note of the fact that seven of their past 10 games against Atlanta have been decided on the final possession.
That includes a game in which kicker John Kasay nailed a 26-yard field goal in overtime to lift New Orleans to a 26-23 win in Atlanta. Then there’s another in 2010 when Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime, then Falcons kicker Matt Bryant hit a 46-yard kick to lead Atlanta to a 27-24 win at the Superdome.
The ones that weren’t close only intensified the dislike between the fan bases. See the 45-16 win for New Orleans over Atlanta at the Superdome in 2011, when Brees broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season. And remember the 23-13 Atlanta home victory last year, when Brees threw five interceptions as the Falcons ended his streak of 54 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
“Anytime you’ve got two prideful teams, organizations that are used to winning and used to playing well ... going at it, that’s a recipe for a very highly competitive, highly intense atmosphere,” Brees said. “So I find you always get that with this game.”
Brees insisted he had been preparing for the Falcons as if they were “a faceless opponent” despite his five-interception outing the last time they met. But it’s easier to believe his teammates, who admitted they embrace the emphasis Saints fans put on Atlanta games at the Superdome.
Among them was right tackle Zach Strief, who said there was no better team on whom to release the frustrations of the preseason, which left a handful of his teammates with season-ending injuries.
“We feel we play well for big games, and the atmosphere is going to be amped up,” he said. “We put in a lot of work for this game — as much as I can remember us putting in for a long time.”
Strief’s words are welcome for Saints fans with historical perspective. New Orleans may be dominating the Falcons lately, but the Saints are 0-6 all-time in season openers against Atlanta.