The Falcons-Saints rivalry is one of the greatest in sports, for my money. The fans can’t stand each other, the players can barely stand each other, and over the years several coaches have carried the bright torch of hatred above their heads. Picking just one defining game or moment in a rivalry this legendary is not easy, but it’s what I’m going to try to do this morning.
I am a spiteful person, so mine is one that illustrates how petty and ridiculous this rivalry can be and how these teams regularly embarrass each other, but in this case, it’s how the Saints in particular wind up on the wrong end of that. I think choosing one moment to define the rivalry is tricky and will likely depend on how long your memory is, what your appetite for pettiness is, and of course how much you hate the Saints in general.
Here’s mine: It was December 7, 2017, and Devonta Freeman had picked up zero yards on a first down carry with the Falcons down 17-10. A weirdly exuberant Sean Payton started yelling “choke!” on the sideline and making a choking motion toward Freeman, a weird taunt that was entirely in character for Payton. The Saints, naturally, had been joyously rolling around in the Falcons Super Bowl fiasco like a pig in poop ahead of the matchup, and Payton probably felt safe piling on.
As so often happens in this dumb, wonderful rivalry, a small gesture backfired spectacularly. The Falcons would go on to score on a Matt Ryan strike to Mohamed Sanu, the Saints would punt, and then the Falcons would knock home a field goal to take a 20-17 lead. The Saints drove downfield to try to take the lead and salt the game away, but it wasn’t to be, as Deion Jones snagged perhaps his most iconic interception by leaping up in the end zone.
The game still wasn’t over, though, because the Falcons needed to pick up a first down and let New Orleans grind through their timeouts. Freeman would fumble and Wes Schweitzer saved the day by falling on it, but the prospect of the Saints choking it away got Payton so hopping mad he ran onto the field after a ref and earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Falcons a first down, which allowed them to kneel it out and end the game with a narrow win.
To me, as many huge moments and games as these two teams have played over the years, nothing quite defines this rivalry like a game with not just twists and turns but an arc of hubris, failure, and comeuppance that makes so many Falcons-Saints games so profoundly weird and memorable. The proceedings are often close until the end and very rarely straightforward.
Let’s hear your defining moment (or moments) from the long-running Falcons-Saints rivalry.