Ten years ago, the Falcons traveled to New Orleans for the third game of the season, having been summoned by the NFL to play the role of homecoming patsy.
It was on that Monday night in 2006 when the Superdome reopened, just as the city was emerging from its post-Katrina trauma. The Saints advanced the healing by crushing their long-time division rival. They blocked a punt early, returned it for a touchdown – a moment frozen in time with a bronze sculpture that stands outside the Superdome – and went on to humiliate Falcons on national television 23-3.
“Tonight is about the celebration of the people of New Orleans,” new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
And that’s all anybody really wanted to acknowledge at that moment, including, stunningly, many in Flowery Branch.
I remember being taken aback in the days following the game how many team executives and coaches were saying, “Nobody was going to beat the Saints that night.” As if the team had a built-in excuse for losing. Many were upset when I wrote a column suggesting that while it was a great moment for New Orleans, the Falcons should be concerned because they had several weaknesses exposed in the game.
In the weeks that followed, Michael Vick’s play continued to decline, the Falcons lost their final seven of nine and nine of 14 games, finishing 7-9 and far out of the playoffs. It was the last anybody in Atlanta would see of coach Jim Mora or, as it turned out, Vick.
I bring this up now because the Falcons and Saints will meet again in the third game of the season on Monday night, the 10th anniversary of the post-Hurricane Katrina game. There will be special guests and ceremonies and I’m certain the ESPN broadcast crew will squeeze every possible warm-and-fuzzy moment possible out of the broadcast.
But if the Falcons flop again, understand something: It’s not about the moment, it’s about their team.
Last week’s win over the Oakland Raiders was important because the Falcons couldn’t afford to start 0-2 with their difficult early schedule. This game is important, partly for of the same reason, but also because it’s against an NFC South Division team and the Falcons have lost too many of these meetings.
They went 1-5 in the division last season. Even just a split of the six division games – which would’ve meant defeating the non-playoff Saints and Tampa Bay one time each – would have given the Falcons an overall record of 10-6 and a possible playoff berth.
Three of the Falcons’ first four games this season are against division rivals. But they opened the year by losing to Tampa Bay at home. That dropped them to 1-7 in their last eight games against South teams, going back to a 34-3 loss to Carolina to end the 2014 season.
“All games are important, but division games are the most important because your goal is to get into the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Winning the division games is the best way to get to (there).”
This has become a lopsided series. New Orleans has won the last two meetings, eight of the last 11 and 15 of 20 since 2006, starting with that game 10 years ago.
New Orleans is looking to beat anybody, having started the season 0-2, but Saints guard Tim Lelito told the Times-Picayune, “There are rivalries – inter-conference rivalries – so there’s a little bit more (at stake against the Falcons). Since I’ve been here, I think we’ve only lost once. We definitely shouldn’t lose this game. That’s the mentality we have going into this.”
The Falcons have created enough happy memories for the Saints.