NEW ORLEANS — Atlanta, its residents would tell you, is the grand city of the South, the capital of the region and the leader in innovation.
New Orleans, its residents would tell you, is culturally more diverse and nationally more significant with its port on the Mississippi River and, really, just a better city.
But here’s where citizens of both can agree – the rivalry between the Saints and the Falcons is one of the hottest, most intense in the NFL.
“It’s full of emotion. Everybody knows our fans don’t like their fans,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “The players, we all know each other very well. We play twice a year. It’s definitely a big game. It always seems to have a little bit extra juice to it.”
And adding to this year’s heat is how hot Atlanta is coming into today’s noon game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Falcons are 8-0 for the first time franchise history.
The Saints (3-5) are the next opponent up, salivating over the chance to not only beat a division rival, but to knock it off the undefeated perch.
At least, you’d think the players would be more hyped because of Atlanta’s record.
“I think we know what to expect,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We don’t need any extra motivation. There’s plenty that we already have.”
The Saints have won 10 of the past 12 games against Atlanta. And in the past six games, the point differential is just eight points per game, including four straight three-point games.
The outlier since 2009, however, came last year in the penultimate game of the regular season.
New Orleans ran up a 45-16 win, one capped by a touchdown pass from Brees to Darren Sproles with just 2:51 to go in the game. The pass broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old NFL record for passing yards in a season, but some felt like the Saints were running the score up on national TV just to set records.
Those involved, however, claim last year’s game won’t play a factor in this one. No hard feelings, they say.
“Not at all,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We didn’t play very well. They played extremely well that night. We’ve got to go out and (the) object of the game is to go out and score points when you’re on offense and stop them when you’re on defense.”
On paper, the Falcons could be in line to dish out payback. The Saints defense ranks last in the NFL in total defense, giving up more run yards than any other team in the league and more pass yards than all but three other teams.
The Falcons boast the league’s No. 8 offense, buoyed by the NFL’s 8th-best passing attack. Quarterback Matt Ryan has the third-highest passer rating in the NFL (103.0) and the fourth-most touchdown passes (17).
The hardest to cover Falcons receiver has been Julio Jones, who had 628 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Yet, none of that really matters. Not when the teams are as familiar with each other as New Orleans and Atlanta are.
And while acting Saints head coach Joe Vitt isn’t playing up the rivalry, saying, “I don’t know about the rivalry fact. I don’t think we have a pep rally and a bonfire tonight anywhere,” it’s no doubt real.
“Oh yeah. It’s hatred,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “Both cities, both teams. You don’t like either person. You don’t like the city or anything about them. You don’t like the colors. It has always come down to the last three minutes of the game and it’s always a physical game.”