The Falcons and Saints will meet this weekend, in the season finale of the NFL’s inaugural 17-game schedule, to renew the best and most heated rivalry in football. When they kick off at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it will be with the Falcons leading the all time series 54-51.
These teams have played against one another more times than anyone else in each of their respective franchise histories. From 1970 through present day, they have met twice in every single season, and three times in 1991, when they played each other in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs.
I talked about the series history from a big picture summary standpoint in the Week 9 version of this article, ahead of their matchup in Louisiana. You can find that article here. Today, we will touch on a few specific moments.
I don’t think any season generated greater joy for Falcons fans in this series than the 1978 rendition of the rivalry. In Week 11 of that year, they beat the Saints with a last second hail marry pass from Steve Bartkowski to Alfred Jackson (with an assist from Wallace Francis’ tip), which resulted in a 57-yard game-winning touchdown to win it 20-17. That completed a turnaround after the Falcons trailed 17-6 with 2:23 remaining. That play was famously nicknamed “Big Ben Right.”
In the return matchup in Atlanta later that season, the Falcons once again beat the Saints at the last second, after Bartkowski led a 72-yard touchdown drive in the game’s final 53 seconds (with no timeouts remaining). The score of that game was also 20-17. These two improbable wins helped the Falcons make it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Had the Saints won both games, they would have made the postseason instead.
New Orleans had to wait until 1987 to make their first playoff appearance. In 1991, they won the NFC West for the first time, and met the Falcons in the Wildcard card that year. In a back and forth game, the Birds pulled off the upset after Michael Haynes scored a game winning 61-yard touchdown with 2:50 remaining.
In 2017, Deion Jones secured a victory for the Falcons after he intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone, in a situation where the Saints, down three, were well within field goal range and looking to win the game.
On New Orleans’ side, maybe their most memorable game in franchise history came against the Falcons. That was the 2006 home opener, when they reopened the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city a year earlier. Steve Gleason blocking Michael Koenen’s punt in that first quarter will forever remain the greatest play in their franchise’s history.
In Week 16 of the 2011 season, Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s single season passing record in a game against the Falcons, on Monday Night Football. The Saints ran up the score to get that record in the national spotlight, as Atlanta’s defense didn’t exhibit too much resistance.
It was Week 9 of this season, when the 3-4 Falcons traveled to Louisiana to face the 5-2 Saints, who had just lost quarterback Jameis Winston for the season, but were coming off of a big win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the game where he got hurt.
The New Orleans defense was formidable as ever but apparently Matt Ryan didn’t get that message, as he had his best performance of the year in that game, throwing for a season high 343 passing yards, accounting for three total touchdowns (two passing and one rushing), committing no turnovers and registering a season high passer rating of 135.8.
The Falcons were in control of this game for most of the afternoon, as New Orleans committed costly penalties and had a number of costly drops to dig themselves into a hole. Even though Atlanta had no semblance of a run game, they did what they wanted through the air and led 17-3 after three quarters.
The game looked over after James Vaughters strip sacked Trevor Siemian and Steven Means recovered the fumble and ran it back to the New Orleans six-yard-line to set up an Olamide Zaccheaus touchdown one play later to give the Birds a 24-6 fourth quarter lead.
From there, however, the Saints scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions and forced the Falcons to punt twice to take their first lead of the game — 25-24 — with just 1:01 remaining.
With Falcons fans in disbelief at the prospect of another choke and Saints fans in delirium, Cordarrelle Patterson restored order with a 64-yard catch and run down the sideline on the first play of Atlanta’s final drive to set up a game-winning Younghoe field goal for the win as time expired.