ATLANTA — Finally, one of the NFL's most heated rivalries has two teams that are worthy of all that passion.
For much of the past four decades, the fans of Atlanta and New Orleans got fired up when their teams met — but hardly anyone else paid attention.
That's all changed now. The Saints (10-4) are the defending Super Bowl champions and closing in on a return trip to the playoffs. The Falcons (12-2) have the best record in the NFC and their sights on home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Heading into a crucial game Monday night, the teams already have combined for their most wins ever in the same season.
"It's a really good time to be a Falcons fan. It's a really good time to be a Saints fan," said retired NFL kicker Morten Andersen, who played for both teams and now lives in Atlanta. "All you can say is, 'Merry Christmas!' It should be a great game."
These teams are linked by more than just proximity (about a seven-hour drive). They entered the NFL one year apart, the Falcons in 1966, the Saints following in '67. They have been in the same division since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, giving them home-and-home games each year.
When the Saints head north to face the Falcons, thousands of fans from the Big Easy usually descend on the A-T-L. The situation is reversed when the teams play in New Orleans, giving Atlantans an excuse to party on Bourbon Street.
"Certainly in the fans' minds, this was the game you put an 'x' beside and said, 'That's the game I'm definitely going to,"' Andersen said. "You could take a long weekend, have a good time and forget about everything else because you had the Saints and the Falcons."
The already strong bond between the two cities was strengthened further by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and resulted in thousands of people evacuating to Atlanta in search of shelter.
Many decided to stay rather than return to their battered hometown.
The teams have been linked by their misery on the field.
New Orleans went 20 years before its first winning season, those early years defined by bag-wearing fans too embarrassed to be seen cheering on their "Aints." The history of the Atlanta franchise isn't much better — an occasional playoff appearance overwhelmed by one dismal year after another.
When Arthur Blank bought the Falcons in 2002, someone mentioned to him that he was now the proud owner of a franchise that had never even managed back-to-back winning seasons.
"I was like, 'That's not right,"' recalled Blank, who had been a longtime season-ticket holder. "But I went back and checked it myself and I'm like, 'You know what? You're right."'
The Falcons have put that ignominious streak to rest, compiling their third straight winning season — a run that's even more remarkable since it came on the heels of franchise quarterback Michael Vick being sent to prison for running a dogfighting ring in 2007.
New Orleans has soared even higher, becoming the first of these franchises to win a Super Bowl title with their inspiring run to the championship last season.
"They have a young team, we have a young team. The guys are going to be there for a while," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "The rivalry's going to be strong for many years to come."
Smith knows a thing or two about rivalries. He grew up in New York City watching the Yankees take on the hated Boston Red Sox in baseball. When he signed with Ohio State, he found himself right in the middle of one of college football's most bitter annual showdowns against Michigan.
He doesn't think Saints-Falcons matches up to those rivalries just yet.
"The difference," Smith said, "is Ohio State is always in the national championship hunt. Same with Boston in the World Series and the Yankees. The difference is the Saints in previous years weren't that good and the
Falcons weren't either. That doesn't diminish it, but it doesn't make it comparable."
Of course, if the teams can maintain the success of the past two seasons, this will become more than a quaint little feud between close-knit cities.
There certainly has been plenty of excitement on the field, with the last four meetings decided by a total of 18 points. In their first clash of 2010, Atlanta knocked off the Super Bowl winners 27-24 in overtime after Garrett Hartley missed a chip shot for the win.
If the Falcons can complete the sweep Monday night, they'll lock up the division title and home-field advantage in the NFC. The Saints need one more win — or a Tampa Bay loss or tie — to lock up their second straight trip to the playoffs.
And maybe, just maybe, a third matchup with the Falcons in the postseason.
"They are the defending world champs," Falcons receiver Roddy White said. "We have to beat the champs to become the champs. That's what we're trying to do."
As if the game didn't have enough hype, White stirred things up even more with a series of inflammatory posts on Twitter early in the week. The one that really rubbed the Saints the wrong way referred to Katrina: "The grace of god gave them tht championship so tht city wouldn fall apart now and now they think they hot (obscenity)."
"You would think somebody with the years he's been in this league, you don't need to motivate anybody and you definitely don't want to give your opposing team any extra fuel," Smith said. "So, thanks Roddy, for the motivation."
Ahh, now that sounds like a real rivalry.