The Saints-Falcons rivalry is pure Dirty South, though the passion and pomp that have come to define the biannual clash are rooted in a time when the 500-mile stretch between the two cities was known by a different name -- Dixie.
Dirtier than our rice or their Dirty Bird, the rivalry in many regards is defined by that regional pride. Because, as two of the NFL's historically underachieving franchises with no Super Bowl rings between them, the intensity certainly hasn't often come from playoff-caliber performances.
"These teams were never playing for a championship," says Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher in a recent telephone interview. "It's a neighborhood rivalry. You don't want to lose to the poor trash from the other town, the thinking goes. Neither club was outstanding, and this game was their one chance to win."
Besides the cities' relatively close proximity, lending the games a veritable "backyard brawl" feel, many other factors help shape the rivalry into one of the league's best. The teams share a common history, competing in the same division since the Saints began play in 1967 -- one year after the Falcons started. While much of that joined past was mired in football futility, the Saints-Falcons games have provided plenty of memorable moments, including a playoff thriller in the Superdome. (For those keeping score, the Falcons hold the lifetime series edge, 40-27.)
And the future of the rivalry shines bright, rising on the budding greatness of quarterbacks (and cousins) Aaron Brooks and Michael Vick. This season, the games both in Atlanta and New Orleans are sold out, a strange feat for teams that rarely sell out games this far in advance, if at all. The two quarterbacks, as well as front office and coaching changes, have made the franchises playoff contenders. The recent success just gives rabid fans a better excuse to do what many feel the rivalry is all about: hard-partying road trips, whether you're second-lining with ReBirth Brass Band down Peachtree Street or raising hell in the French Quarter like you can't in Atlanta.
"Interest in the Saints-Falcons game is as high as it's ever been," says Bob Remy, 65, who boasts of being third in line for season tickets in 1967. Witness to the Saints' first victory in New Orleans, a 27-14 preseason win over the Falcons at Tulane Stadium, Remy has never missed a Saints home game. For the past 28 years, Remy has worked as the Saints' statistician crew coordinator.
"The thing that bothers me about Atlanta are the fans," Remy says. "Most of the people in New Orleans, they're second- and third-generation Saints fans. Atlanta's changed so much, everybody's an out-of-towner. They're probably from Ohio or New York. I hate to lose to something like that, because the real fans are here, in New Orleans."
Remy had plenty of that "hate to lose" feeling from 1995 to 1999, when the Saints lost 10 straight to Atlanta. On the flipside, Remy followed Jim Mora's squads that went 13-3 against the Falcons from 1986 to 1994. However, during that successful stretch, New Orleans suffered perhaps the most painful loss in franchise history. The 1991 NFC West champion Saints lost in the opening round of the playoffs 27-20 to the Falcons. Atlanta clinched a come-from-behind victory with less than two minutes remaining after a 61-yard touchdown catch by Falcons receiver Michael Haynes, a New Orleans native and graduate of Clark High School in Treme.
"We finally make it to the playoffs, at home in the Dome, and one of our hometown guys does it to us," Remy recalls, his voice tensing in the memory. "That's a loss that sticks with you."
"Saints fans have made the Falcons-Saints series an exciting one," Bisher says. "Since the beginning, Saints fans have traveled up here in droves. They'd charter buses, these 'who dats.' If they didn't outnumber the local fans, which they often did, they'd out-noise them. They'd bring their own Dixieland band; the Saints fans would dance in the aisles. You had to love it. It wasn't a reciprocal thing; nobody in Atlanta would do anything like that."
Last season, Bisher's colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took issue with Saints star receiver Joe Horn's well-publicized comments that the Falcons "ain't good enough to be no rival." In the week leading up to the game in Atlanta, columnist Steve Hummer wrote: "If the Falcons-Saints is not a rivalry ... then Coke and Pepsi are kissing carbonated cousins. ... If not a rivalry, it would have to be for the fact that Atlanta is just so plainly better in ways that matter beyond football."
The focal point of Hummer's column was an interview with then-Falcons cornerback Ashley Ambrose, a New Orleans native that signed with the Saints this past offseason to a four-year, $8 million contract. The columnist quotes Ambrose as saying "Atlanta's a better city," "I don't miss seeing a whole bunch of drunks hanging all over the place," and "That city has been corrupted for a long time."
Ambrose doesn't deny making the statements, but says, "(The column) was written to say that I dogged the city of New Orleans out. That's not true. My people are there. (The column) was put in a way that was real negative."
Ambrose, alumnus of Alcee Fortier High School in Uptown, still lives in suburban Atlanta. "I don't want my children to go to school (in New Orleans), since we have excellent schools here," he says. Still, he's excited to return and play for his hometown team.
"It wasn't a money situation, me signing with the Saints -- it was to play on a good team that can win a championship," Ambrose says by telephone from Atlanta. "Now, I've got a chance to play at home in front of friends and family. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. It'd be such an honor to win a Super Bowl, a playoff game, with the team that I grew up with being my favorite team."
Ambrose says he was aware of the Saints-Falcons rivalry as a kid growing up "because of all the red shirts that would pop up downtown the Thursday before the Falcons game, and when family members caught the bus to Atlanta for the game."
A 12-year NFL veteran, Ambrose says, "To me, the Falcons-Saints is the biggest rivalry in the NFL. Some say Green Bay-Chicago, but this is it. The fans make it. The cities are so close, and they're so connected. It's always a friendly thing; it's all about friends, families, parties and talking trash. It's the party."
As with so many other facets of New Orleans culture, much of the Saints-Falcons rivalry revolves around "the party." Dennis Robertson was well aware of that aspect when, in 1998, he formed the Elite Sports Club with 11 other members from the sheriff's departments in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes. The club travels to fish, to gamble and to attend boxing matches, but their annual highlight comes when they charter two buses for the trip to Atlanta for the Falcons game.
"It reminds me of Mardi Gras," Robertson says of the scene in Atlanta that weekend. "Everybody in the street is from New Orleans, and they're partying like they're in New Orleans. We take our party from here to there. You don't sleep from Friday to Sunday.
"We take the Superdome atmosphere and bring it to Atlanta. Even up there, you look around, and it's all black and gold. That trip, that party, that's what Saints fans are all about."