For many years, the biggest and best rivalry in the NFC was the Dallas Cowboys versus the Washington Redskins.
In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, those games meant something significant and both teams were perennial playoff and Super Bowl-contending teams.Those days have long passed.
The Green Bay Packers versus the Chicago Bears almost rivaled the Dallas/Washington series for many years and it is still one of the most hotly-contested games of the season. However, if you are looking at meaningful games and teams playing for divisional championships, you can make a good argument that the New Orleans Saints versus the Atlanta Falcons is the best rivalry game in the NFC over the past five seasons.
Both the Saints and Falcons came into the league one year apart and were considered two of the worst teams in the NFL in the 60s and 70s. Now that the fortune has turned around for both teams, each squad’s fans in this southern rivalry hate when the other team has success.
In 2008, the Atlanta Falcons had an 11-5 record and got into the playoffs as a wild-card team. The New Orleans Saints were an 8-8 football team in 2008 and the teams split the two-game series.
In 2009, the New Orleans Saints swept the two-game series with the Atlanta Falcons to post a 13-3 record and eventually win Super Bowl XLIV. The Falcons finished second in the NFC South Division with a 9-7 mark.
In 2010, the Atlanta Falcons won the NFC South Division with a 13-3 mark edging out the Saints,who had an 11-5 record and finished second in the division. The Saints were knocked out of the playoffs in the wild-card round, while the Falcons lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The teams split the series in 2010.
In 2011, the New Orleans Saints won the NFC South Division with a 13-3 mark and the Falcons finished second with a 10-6 record.
The Falcons were knocked out of the playoffs in the wild-card series by eventual Super Bowl winners, the New York Giants. The Saints won their wild-card playoff game against the Detroit Lions and in one of the most brutal losses of the Sean Payton-era, the Saints were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round.
That season the Saints won both games against the Falcons.
In 2012 with Sean Payton suspended for the entire season, the Falcons won the NFC South Division with a 13-3 mark. The Saints finished up with a 7-9 record, but split the series against the "Dirty Birds." The Saints missed the playoffs, but the Falcons made it to the NFC Conference Championship game before being defeated by the San Francisco 49ers.
The games between these two southern-based teams have taken on great meaning, but it has been Sean Payton who has gotten the best of Mike Smith throughout the series. Since Payton took over the Saints in 2006, he has posted a 10-2 win/loss mark in games he has coached against the Falcons.
He has been 5-1 in the Superdome against Atlanta.
Now, the Saints will take on the Falcons in the season opener with Payton returning from his one-year exile and the Falcons trying to defend their South Division crown. This game should be a shootout. The Saints offense is one of the best in the NFL with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore leading the way. The Falcons have Matt Ryan running the show with Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez returning.
But in my opinion, it will come down to who runs the ball better.
The Falcons acquired veteran halfback Steven Jackson in the offseason to elevate their rushing attack and the Saints have Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles back to carry the rushing load.
Both teams had difficulties running the ball effectively in the preseason and this is a cause of concern for both squads. A lot of the problems are due to inconsistent play along the offensive line.
As a Saints fan, you just have to keep one number in mind. When the Saints have rushed for 122 yards or more in football games under Sean Payton, they have gone 26-1. That is not a lot of yardage rushing the ball, but it is an important factor in balancing an offense and keeping a leaky defense off the field.
Drew Brees has bested Matt Ryan in these one-on-one shootouts between the two and Sean Payton has gotten the best of Mike Smith, but where it counts the most is who runs the ball better.
Get to 122 yards rushing or more, and the Saints win this closely contested game again.
These games are normally won by four points or less and that may mean that either Garrett Hartley or Matt Bryant has the final say.
In the last eight games, the margin of victory has been 8, 3, 3, 3, 3, 29, 4 and 10 points. With the "Boss" back at the helm, the Saints win a close contest (31 - 30) over the Falcons.
One thing is a certainty - expect the unexpected.