The Saints and the Falcons

Make no mistake about it, the concept of “mindfulness” is everywhere these days. And whether you’ve decided to hop on the bandwagon or not, the notion—as a marketing tool and pop culture phenomenon—implores us to be present in every moment: not hurried or harried, but a chilled-out, Zen-filled vessel of calm who starts the day by listening to a meditation app and ends it by gratitude journaling next to a salt lamp.

But such a narrow definition of self-care has never quite worked out for me—and it might not be right for you, either. It’s high time we begin to recognize that forms mindfulness and “being in the moment” are more of an individualized, Choose Your Own Adventure-style journey than anything Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to sell us. So, sure, sometimes we might need a three-day yoga retreat to become a healthier, happier version of ourselves. But sometimes, we need to eat delivery pizza at 2 a.m. while watching Seinfeld reruns.  And then there are those times when recharging our batteries means painting our faces, donning our lucky underwear and screaming our lungs out as part of the heart-pumping energy that comes with a good ‘ol fashioned sports rivalry.

In sports (and football, specifically), a good rivalry is an artform. It binds local communities together, rallying practically everyone around a shared, common goal of trouncing the long-hated other team. It’s passed down through generations as a kind of grudge-holding family tradition, and allows people to believe in something bigger than themselves: that these heroes of athleticism will bring bragging rights home for everyone to enjoy the boast-worthy spoils.

“This is a complicated world with serious problems…so it can feel silly and frivolous to get so wrapped up in sports rivalries,” writes the University of Texas’ Art Markman in a 2014 New York Times opinion piece. “But taking part in rivalries has some real psychological benefits. On game day, fans get to have the full range of emotional experience including anxiety, joy, anger, excitement and disappointment. There are few opportunities in life that afford these extreme emotional experiences. And so the investment in the rivalry pays off in those unmatched moments of pure feeling.”

And while there are plenty of rivalries that have gone down in the history books as legendary (Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali, for instance, or in college basketball, Duke and the University of North Carolina), but for many professional football fans people across the South, there’s no bigger modern rivalry than the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons.

But what—exactly—makes these two teams such worthy, engaging rivals, year after year? Below are multiple tenants of what makes a rivalry truly riveting, and how the Saints-versus-Falcons match-up continues to draw fans with vim and vitriol each season. (Oh, and Who Dat!)

A good rivalry has familiarity—and history.
Whether or not fans would ever admit it, the Saints and Falcons have quite similar origin stories. The Saints entered the National Football League (NFL) as an expansion team in 1967, just two years after their neighboring Deep South team, the Atlanta Falcons, were also born as part of an expansion effort. They met for the first time on November 20, 1967, with the Saints just barely eeking out a win over the Falcons, 27-24. But it wasn’t the score that mattered that day, because something much larger was born: a blood-boiling, hard-scrabble rivalry.

Both the Saints and Falcons were originally placed in the National Football Conference (NFC) West in 1970, then moved to the NFC South in 2002, which ensures that the teams have played at least two games against each other each year since—allowing plenty of opportunities for both memorable moments and mud-slinging.

And there are few fan bases who can sling mud better. The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is taken to its most venomous level when the Saints and Falcons are concerned, and fans on both sides aren’t afraid to get creative with their name-calling. Among the slurs hurled at the Atlanta Falcons by Saints fans, favorites include the “Failcons” and “Failcant’s”—plus several that aren’t quite fit for print. Falcons love to hit back by calling New Orleans’ football finest “the Ain’ts” and the “Cain’ts.” There are also plenty (and I mean plenty) of chants, refrains and jokes with the singular aim of getting fans completely riled up. (A personal, cheesy favorite: How many Falcons fans does it take to change a light bulb? None! They are happy living in New Orleans’ shadow.)

A strong rivalry also means that there’s a bevy of historic moments that have been crystalized in the memories of loyal fans who are more than happy to reminisce about them—play-by-play—at a moment’s notice. There’s Atlanta’s 62-7 blowout of the Saints at Tulane Stadium in 1973. There’s 2009 (the Saints’ Super Bowl win year), when Darren Sharper intercepted a pass from Matt Ryan to stave off a Falcons comeback and raise the team’s record to 13-0. And there’s the Falcon’s 1991 victory in the only playoff match-up between the two. The list goes on and on.

But then there are moments in the Saints-Falcons history that have been memorialized far beyond the collective consciousness. Without a doubt, the grandest example of this is the golden statue erected outside of the New Orleans Superdome in 2012 depicting Saints safety Steve Gleason as he blocked a punt by Falcons kicker Michael Koenen. (The punter depicted in the statute is generic because the Falcons, of course, wouldn’t allow their logo to be used.) This wasn’t just any punt block between rivals, though. The now-legendary event occurred during the Saints’ first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, and has become symbolic of the team’s unwavering spirit and resilience. The statue’s official name is—what else?—“Rebirth.”

A good rivalry has two worthy adversaries.
While Atlanta and New Orleans football fans have been duking it out for decades, few people outside of the region noticed for most of the teams’ tenure because both franchise were, well, a little lacking in the wins department.

“The Saints and the Falcons both were so bad for so long that I believe this is why their nasty rivalry never gets attention from the mainstream media,” writes Mike Kerns of Bleacher Report. “In fact, the futility was so bad that up until the Falcons’ Super Bowl run of 1998, both franchises had only managed to capture the division crown once each.”

Since the late 1990s, though, the teams have not only started beating each other, but become powerhouses on a national scale. Atlanta has two conference championships to New Orleans’ one—but the Saints have a Super Bowl ring. New Orleans has seven division championships to Atlanta’s six—but the Falcons have the all-time win streak in their rivalry against the Saints (10 games between 1995-1999). The two teams are so historically well-matched against one another that the all-time number of wins in the series is almost an even-split between the two: 52 victories for the Falcons, and 48 for the Saints.

Without a doubt, these two teams go tit-for-tat.

A good rivalry means celebrating the other team’s defeats as much as your own victories.
Is a Falcons’ loss as satisfying as a Saints’ win for fans and vice versa? Not quite, but it’s pretty darn close.

No recent incident captures this more vividly than Saints’ fans glee—I mean, absolute giddiness—at the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl. Memes about the implosion were created instantaneously and circulated like wildfire on social media. The Saints pep band worked a “28-3” formation into their on-field performances, as did the short-short wearing male dance troupe the 610 Stompers. New Orleans-based company Dirty Coast attempted to buy a billboard outside of the Falcons’ new Atlanta stadium that trolled the team about their 28-3 loss.

But the finest example of basking in your rival team’s failings (and never, ever letting them forget it) came when someone paid an pilot to fly above the Superdome carrying a banner proclaiming, “28-3 Merry X-Mas” during the first Saints-Falcons game following the Atlanta team’s Super Bowl disaster.

Petty? Yes. Hilarious? Definitely, yes.

A good rivalry is so much bigger than a game.
Perhaps most importantly, a strong rivalry between teams is able to get the whole community riled up. And along with the trash talk, hollering and superstitions on both sides, there’s plenty of culture on display: rivalry game day is, without a doubt, its own special kind of celebration.

“Every year, bus caravans loaded with rowdy (and usually very inebriated) fans make the seven-hour trip between the two cities,” writes Len Pasquarelli for “Unless you’ve attended a Falcons-Saints debauchery-filled afternoon, you’ll just have to take my word for how much fun it really can be.”

For the Saints and Falcons, it’s also a larger clash between the very character of two extremely different Southern cities. With over 5.5 million people, Atlanta is filled with the kind of skyscrapers and traffic-snarling sprawl that mark it as sweepingly metropolitan. New Orleans, on the other hand, is smaller and funkier—content to do its own thing down along the Gulf. Game day between these two rivals isn’t just about what happens on the field, but a true grudge match for pride of place and local identity.

A good rivalry makes your team—and fan-base—tougher.
Going into the 2019 season, the Saints and Falcons have clashed 100 times over the course of their respective careers, and have been pushing each other to grow, develop and achieve in ways that non-rivalry competitions just can’t. It’s not hard to imagine that, while in trainings and practices, Saints players are fantasizing about picking off a pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, and the Falcons defense is running drill after drill in hopes of sacking Drew Brees.

The cities of New Orleans and Atlanta are assuredly gearing up, too: figuring out just how they’re going to clown around on one another in an innovative, memorable fashion this year as decades of history, rivalry and community pride come to a head.

If they’re looking for top-notch inspiration to stoke the rivalry fires, I’d point fans on both sides to a 2013 commercial for a local New Orleans bank starring Saints head coach Sean Peyton. In the ad, the coach appears to be dining out at a hoity-toity, white tablecloth restaurant (in game day attire, of course). After the waiter asks Peyton what he’d like to eat, the camera zooms in on him running his finger over a list of NFL-inspired dishes—and finally landing on a particularly cheeky one.

“I’ll have the roasted Falcon,” he deadpans to the waiter, then gives the camera a wry smirk.