Saints vs Falcons rivalry: In the beginning (1967-79).
A repost of Allen Ulrich’s excellent article discussing the early days of the New Orleans Saints – Atlanta Falcons rivalry. Keep up with all of Allen’s work at the Under the Dome Podcast.
The Falcons and Saints were born one year apart –the Falcons first season was in 1966, and the Saints in 1967.
The Falcons own a 52-48 overall series edge, with the bulk of the Falcons wins coming in the 1970s and 90s.
The Saints and Falcons only met twice in the 1960s –with the Saints winning the first ever match-up, 27-24, back in 1967, but losing in the 1969 game, 45-17.
But with the AFL/NFL merger and realignment, the Saints were moved to NFC West with the 49ers, Rams and Falcons –which always seemed a strange collection of teams to make up a division –but the history helps explain why.
The AFL had 10 teams in 1969, while the NFL had 16, so in order to balance out the number, three NFL teams –Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore- all moved to the new AFC, while the remaining 13 NFL teams made up the NFC.
The Saints were in the Capitol division (along with Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia) –which became the NFC East in 1970.
Meanwhile, the old Century division –which consisted of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis and New York- dissolved, and the Cardinals and Giants were moved to the new NFC East.
Finally, the old Coastal division –which consisted of the Rams, 49ers, Baltimore Colts and Falcons became the new NFC West.
Therefore, the Saints were moved out of the East/Century division and into the Coastal/West. Had they kept the old name, the alignment might have made more sense to fans who grew up watching a post-merger NFL.
For the better part of the 70s, the “rivalry” was basically two terrible teams battling it out to see who could be more inept.
Aside from a 62-7 Falcon beatdown of the Saints in Tulane Stadium on opening day in 1973, the games were pretty forgettable.
This 1977 game is pretty illustrative of what the games were like: both teams had more penalty yardage than passing yardage –with Steve Bartkowski of the Falcons going 6 of 15 for 52 yards and 1 TD and 2 interceptions; while the Saints’ Bobby Douglass would go 3 of 7 for 11 yards and a pick, until Archie Manning would come on in relief, going 10/18 for 82 yards, 2 TDs and 2 interceptions.
The Falcons would fumble the ball 5 times, and the two teams would commit a combined 20 penalties for 169 yards. One touchdown scoring drive would have 10 penalties committed by the two teams –at one point the penalties would put the Saints at a 2nd and 40, then convert it into a first down thanks to penalties.
The Falcons built a 20-7 first half lead, only to watch it fade away into a 21-20 Saints victory –one of only three victories the ’77 Saints would get that season.
This would all change in 1978.
Leeman Bennett was hired to coach the Falcons prior to the 1977 season, and would assemble the “Grits Blitz” coached by defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville. That Falcons’ ’77 defense was one of the best in NFL history, only allowing a then-NFL record 129 points in a 14 game season -but the offense was terrible, so the team finished 7-7.
In 1978, the Saints replaced Hank Stram with Dick Nolan, and after drafting Wes Chandler out of Florida and trading for guard Conrad Dobler and WR Ike Harris –as well as having a fully healthy Archie Manning, began to assemble the best Saints offense under the ownership of John Mecom.
Nolan came from the Tom Landry coaching tree, and was a believer of the Flex defense –a read and react, gap control defense designed to shut down the run –specifically, Vince Lombardi’s “run to daylight” philosophy, which had the back picking his holes to run through.
Lombardi’s philosophy still ruled the NFL in the 1970s, and the Flex formed the backbone of Dallas’ Doomsday Defenses that got the Cowboys to four Super Bowls from 1970-77, and made them one of the most dominant teams of the decade.
However, in 1978, the league made rule changes designed to open up the passing game. Called the Mel Blount rule (because the Steeler HOFer so physically dominated receivers), it limited contact to five yards past the line of scrimmage. Prior to that, corners could jam receivers all the way through the pass route so long as the ball wasn’t in the air. Blount would routinely punch, push and throw receivers completely out of routes, so the quarterback had no one to throw to –so running the football became the key to winning.
With the opened up passing game, Bartkowski and Manning became much better passers and the games became more entertaining.
Two games in 1978 shaped both teams’ seasons –and both were decided on the last play. A Hail Mary in the Superdome called “Big Ben” gave the Falcons a 20-17 win, and two weeks later, a pass interference call negated a Saints interception, giving the Falcons an untimed down on the Saints’ 1. Bartkowski hit his tight end in the end zone for yet another 20-17 win.
The Falcons finished 9-7 and went to the playoffs, the Saints 7-9 –the perfect fuel for a rivalry.
The schedule makers knew what they were doing as the Saints would open the 1979 season hosting the Falcons. Former Governor Edwin Edwards arrived at the Saints pep rally, setting the crowd into a raucous cheer, as he opened his dress shirt like Clark Kent changing into Superman revealing a white T-shirt with a single phrase emblazoned on it: “I Hate The Falcons”
The shirts sold out in record time.
30,000 Falcon fans came to New Orleans to watch the showdown, giving the Saints their first sellout/blackout lifted game in nearly a decade.
The two teams did not disappoint, scoring a combined 48 points in the first half. Manning threw a TD pass to Harris to start the game, while Chuck Muncie scored twice on the ground, and threw a TD pass to Chandler on an option play. Muncie would rush for over 100 yards, and Chandler would set a team record that would stand for 39 years: 205 yards receiving. (Michael Thomas would break it against the Rams in 2018.)
But is a pattern that would repeat itself in a critical game late in the season, the Saints red hot offense would go cold, and the Falcons would roar back forcing a 34-34 tie into overtime.
The Falcons would get the ball first, but safety Tommy Myers would pick off Bartkowski at just about midfield. The Saints failed to get a first down, so first round draft pick Russell Erxsleben stood there waiting for the punt, hoping to pin the Falcons deep.
The punt would never happen.
The snap went over the head of Erxsleben, and he chased the loose football to just outside the Saints end zone… from there, he scooped it up and threw a Garo Yepremian type of pass right into the arms of a charging Falcons linebacker, who gleefully ran in for the game winning touchdown.
Once again, the Falcons won on a last second play –and the rivalry grew in intensity.
A 37-6 beating of the Falcons is a soggy, sloppy Atlanta Fulton County Stadium Thanksgiving weekend was not enough of a salve for Saints fans in ’79. The Falcons finished 6-10 and the Saints stumbled late, losing two of their last three games, missing the playoffs and a winning season, but still finishing with their best ever record, 8-8.
The overall match-up record for the decade was 14-6 in favor of the Falcons.
Saints fans wanted more -including that winning season and a trip to the playoffs- but what they didn’t know was the 1980 season would find the two franchises go into very different directions.