The last time the Falcons and Saints played, way back on Dec. 7, was an important moment in this long, regional rivalry.
In the course of the Falcons victory, one quite controversial (an indispensable word in the rivalry lexicon), Saints coach Sean Payton turned into an absolute jackwagon. He clutched his throat, making a choke sign in the direction of Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. He later charged onto the field like a rabid jackal trying to get a timeout, but instead drew a penalty that doomed his team.
Rather than condemn Payton for being a such a jerkwad we gather today to thank him. For the Falcons-Saints rivalry requires such events to keep it fresh, to remind us that Saint Hate is an emotion primary to those who identify as Falcons fans.
A lot of people move into our sphere from somewhere else and have come late to the Falcons party. They need to know that if they are to fit in, New Orleans should be their primary focus of contempt.
It’s not New England, regardless of its obsession with the numbers 28-3.
It’s not Carolina, even as Cam Newton plans his next first-down gala celebration for when the Panthers come to town.
It’s the Saints. Always the Saints.
That is particularly important to keep in mind this weekend here on the verge of Sunday’s game in New Orleans. For this game has actual repercussions, not always the case. It hasn’t been since 2011 that the Falcons and Saints have met with a combined winning percentage this healthy (19-9, .679). The division hangs in the balance.
For its part, New Orleans, well-practiced at the art of the barely-controlled party, seems primed for the moment.
Already we’ve had former Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert, Cajun by birth and a New Orleans radio blunderbuss by profession, suggest that Payton’s curious penalty was proof the game was fixed.
“It definitely looked like the fix was on and they wanted the Christmas Eve game (against Atlanta) to mean something. They wanted to keep Atlanta in contention,” Hebert railed, making sure talk radio met its quota for conspiracy theories before year’s end.
Thousands of their fans signed a silly internet petition calling for the Saints to bring back their former running back Reggie Bush, just to lead the team onto the field Sunday waving a signature baseball bat. He employed that move years ago before a game against Arizona, messaging the Saints intent to bring the wood. They went on a Super Bowl run then, so obviously this team requires props.
With or without the out-of-context sporting goods, the New Orleans branch of Mercedes Benz-sponsored stadiums is going to be howling Sunday. How are the Falcons to react to this particular sazerac-scented wall of noise and 70,000 or so people issuing the choke sign at various interludes?
It is going to be just the kind of hothouse in which great rivalries continue to grow.
Oh, Payton by the way tried to walk back his antics this week. Directly after the game two weeks ago he said he couldn’t recall doing the whole choke thing. But those memory games he has been playing in the interim must be paying off. For this week, he addressed it all, contritely.
“Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting my emotions get the best of me,” Payton said during a conference call with the Atlanta media.
“It’s the same thing that we talk about with our players all of the time. It wasn’t good and I felt like as that game went on, it even affected me in calling plays. I’ve got to better that way. It was frustrating from some of the officiating. But you learn even when you’ve been in this thing as long as I have. It’s something that you regret and you look back on – ‘what are you doing?’ So, I think that’s the thing that bugged me for the better part of the week.”
But the deed will always speak louder than the explanation, making Payton just the tool to keep this rivalry in good repair.