It took 40 years for the Falcons and Saints rivalry to become a national sensation, but Atlanta has yet to find a way to steal the newfound spotlight.
After the Green Bay Packers' easy Christmas night win over the would-be wild card Bears, it's official: Everyone who's anyone in the NFC South is pretty, and we're all going to prom. But just we're all clear that's no reason not to claw, scratch, bite and beat the absolute dignity out of each other. We're all winners, but the other team is still SUCH a bitch.
After 40-odd years of obscurity, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are finally bona fide pageant stars for the NFL, no longer punchline pro franchise afterthoughts dwelling in the basement of league standings and local interest in the hotbed of college football. But that doesn't mean they're on equal footing - since everyone started noticing, the Falcons have been without argument not quite as pretty.
Tonight's Saints-Falcons game will be the seventh time the South's oldest NFL rivalry has been played on Monday Night Football, the most for Atlanta against any single opponent, if you count the 1991 NFC Wild Card (A 27-20 Atlanta win) carried by ABC and the MNF crew.
As with any franchise-spanning record, the numbers are bleak for Atlanta: 7-20 all-time on Monday night, 9-23 in night games (the worst percentage in the NFL) and 2-4 against the Saints in primetime. Since New Orleans returned to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in a Monday Night game against the Falcons, the Saints are a perfect 4-0 versus the Falcons on Monday nights.
And talk about a forgotten history - if you excise the '91 Wild Card, these teams weren't featured on Monday night until 2005 - meaning that four decades of this rivalry passed without any kind of substantial national attention. Since a 36-17 Atlanta win in 2005, these teams have played on Monday nights five out of the last six seasons, validated by names like Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in an ongoing era where, for the first time since 1967, both teams are among the league's best.
So why don't the Falcons feel like they're on equal footing with the Saints? Take your pick - the Super Bowl title New Orleans won two years ago, the gush of national media the franchise received in a constructed "redemption" narrative bookending their world title with Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta's three-point loss to New Orleans in the Georgia Dome on MNF this time last season (in the league's short memory, the Saints' 17-14 win erased any memory of the Falcons' upset win in New Orleans two months prior), or that glaring 4-0 Monday post-Katrina record.
New Orleans is 9-2 against the Falcons since returning to New Orleans and the Superdome in 2006. Those two Atlanta wins were largely arbitrary: the aforementioned overtime win last season back in September, and a 34-20 home in a 2008 season that saw the Saints finish 8-8 and the Falcons losing in the first round of the Wild Card.
Contrast that with a game that Saints fans cite as the dawn of the resurrection, and Atlanta fans can't bear to revisit - the 23-3 Monday Night Football win adorned with a Super Bowl quality amount of pomp and circumstance by ESPN. Ask a Saints fan - there's no more visible game in the 77 all-time meetings than that night, and the national media sees fit to begin the story of this rivalry with that very game. Always overshadowed but just as unsettling for Atlanta was the second meeting of the 2006, when the beginning of the end of Michael Vick dawned - Brees threw for 348 yards and Vick only 84 in a 31-13 Saints rout that ended with Vick flipping off his own fans.
It's futile to fight revisionist history. Talk about "Big Ben Right" until you're red in the face, but to the casual fan, the NFL didn't exist in SEC country until the son of God was traded by the Chargers. And while it's wonderful this long contentious rivalry has finally been afforded national respect, the Falcons have little in the way of a storybook moment in the Brees-Ryan era.
That's why, playoff scenarios be damned, tonight's game is so vitally important in the ongoing whitewash of the Atlanta Falcons franchise by Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith. That, and good old fashioned hate.