Guerry Clegg commentary: Falcons-Saints rivalry has come a long way

September 7, 2013 

It was born of confused geographical convenience. Two Southern teams sharing space in the NFC West basement. For years, they labored fruitlessly. NFL marketers tried to label it to make it interesting. First "Dixie Classic," then "Southern Showdown."

But for years, it was simply two inept franchises who found company and contempt in their miseries. The Falcons swept the series in 1970, which had regrettable consequences. If the Saints had won both games, then it would have been the Falcons who would have finished with the second-worst record and therefore could have chosen Archie Manning in the draft.

But they've worked their way up to prominence. Today's season-opener in New Orleans is one of the NFL's marquis games, almost big enough to break ESPN's love footsy affair with All Things Rex Ryan and the New York Jets.

The Falcons and Saints each have won five division championships and one NFC Championship. But there's one thing the Saints have that the Falcons don't -- a Lombardi Trophy.

Obviously, the Super Bowl championship will not be on the line today. But the NFC South championship could eventually come back to this game. It's almost a consensus that the division winner will be one of these two teams. And that would create an easier path to the Super Bowl for the winner.

Playoff implications, jumpstart on the division championship, possible home field advantage down the road … that's all well and good. But there's one thing about today's game that matters above all else:

It's Falcons-Saints.

True deep-seeded rivalries in the NFL are rare. Oh, fans of certain teams might not like each other. But seldom does that mutual hostility filter down to the players and coaches.

The teams come into this season from completely different perspectives. The Falcons came within one play of going to the Super Bowl last season. The Saints were a nuclear meltdown, beginning with head coach Sean Payton's season-long suspension for Bounty Gate.

But the difference between the two teams was not nearly so great. In fact, they split their two games, the Saints winning 31-27 in New Orleans, and the Falcons winning 23-13 three weeks later.

So it would be foolish to think today's game will be anything other than another bloodbath.

Home field advantage in the playoffs seems to matter less than ever. In today's game, it's more about getting hot at the right time. The last three Super Bowl champions have lost 19 regular season games among them. The Falcons have had the NFC's best record for two of those three seasons but have just one playoff win to show for it.

The Falcons' winless preseason was a success on at least one account. With one exception, they avoided any significant injuries to key players. That one exception was right tackle Mike Johnson, and time will tell if Johnson's loss will prove problematic. General manager Thomas Dimitroff did a smart job reworking the roster to stay within the salary cap and still address the team's biggest deficiencies, a power running game and speed on defense.

It's hard to know what to make of the Saints. Was last year's debacle the result of the bounty controversy? Or were they just a team whose lack of defense finally caught up with them?

Either way, we've come to expect after 88 meetings spanning 47 years. When these teams get together, it's going to be a dog fight.

-- Guerry Clegg is an indepdent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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