By Keith Antigiovanni
The Atlanta Falcons (5-3) and New Orleans (6-3) resume their annual "Southern Football" rivalry this week at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Atlanta leads the overall series 44-39.
The Falcons are currently on a three-game win streak and can take the sole possession of first place in the NFC South with a win over the Saints. Atlanta must also keep winning to maintain a strong wild card position.
A win for the Saints will give them a much more firm grasp on the division going into their bye week.
In the past this game would have been ignored because of both team's lack of success but the creation of the NFC South 10 years ago, the arrival of strong Coach/QB combinations for both clubs and most of all both teams winning on the field is creating an interest in this game nationally.
What fans are just discovering is this rivalry has always existed and has always been competitive since both of the clubs joined the NFL as expansion teams in 1966 and 1967. They were also put in the NFC West in 1970 and have been division rivals since.
Because of the proximity between Atlanta and New Orleans as well as their similiar histories the two franchises fan base have often compared themselves to each other the way Carolina and Jacksonville have since 1995.
Atlanta had more early success in the 1970's and 1980's while New Orleans did not have a winning season until its' 21st year (1987) under Coach Jim Mora. Mora did help the Saints get respectability (93-74) in his 10.5 year run (1986-1996) when he helped lead them to 7 straight years of .500 or over but even he became worn out and quit halfway thru his 11th year (1996).
The Falcons appeared to be on the rise as an NFC power in the late 1990's when former Denver Broncos Head Coach returned to his home state of Georgia and helped lead Atlanta to its' first NFC Title Game and first Super Bowl in 1998 but the success was short lived and Reeves was dismissed during 2003.
Atlanta rebounded under new Head Coach Jim Mora Jr. and QB Michael Vick when they made the NFC title game again in 2004 thanks in part to a strong run game and Vick's unique talents but the Mora/Vick honeymoon was only three years after Mora's ugly departure (when he criticized Vick) from Atlanta after 2006 and Vick's dog abuse charges followed.
After a disastrous 2005 when the Hurricane Katrina tragedy hit New Orleans the Saints appeared to be on the move to San Antonio until a remarkable rebuilding effort by the state of Louisiana and its' people helped rebuild the city and keep the Saints in New Orleans.
Former Dallas Cowboy assistant Sean Payton became Head Coach of the Saints and signed former San Diego Charger Drew Brees to be his QB. The result over 5.5 years later is a 55-34 record 2 NFC Title Games, 1 NFC title and a Super Bowl win in 2009.
Not wanting to be outdone the Falcons appeared to be on the outs when Vick went to prison three years ago but former Jacksonville Jaguars assistant Mike Smith stepped in like Payton to the Falcons job and has brought stability and direction to the club in 2008.
He has helped lead the Falcons to three straight winning seasons (2008-2010), an overall record of 38-18, an NFC South title and is in the process of developing young Matt Ryan into a solid NFL QB.
The game between the Falcons and Saints is not only for first place in the division or state pride but is about which team has come the longest during some of the darkest years in both of the franchises' history.