The Atlanta Falcons were beating the New Orleans Saints so bad that Phil Frazier put down his tuba. This was in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium -- Frazier doesn't remember the year, sometime in the late '80s. He and the rest of the Rebirth Brass Band -- one of New Orleans' classic second-line bands -- had been playing right there in the stands for the big group of Saints fans who traveled up for the game. But the Falcons had shut up the Saints on the field and in the crowd. All Frazier could hear were those Atlanta fans going yap, yap, yap.
Then, in the fourth quarter, the Saints came back and won.
Somebody in the Saints section started a chant, and pretty soon the whole section had joined in:
Talk that s--- now!
Talk that s--- now!
Frazier picked up his tuba and started a bass line under the chant. The other guys grabbed their horns and drums and made up their parts on the fly. The fans and the band kept it up all the way out to the parking lot.
Rebirth crafted a song out of that moment. They put it on an album and have played it live all over the world. Those four words are the title and the only lyrics. It's the perfect theme for the Saints vs. the Falcons. The words work for both sides.
Since the two teams entered the NFL a year apart in the '60s, the Falcons and Saints -- and even more, their fans -- have fought one of the most underrated rivalries in sports. It's not just about football. It's about culture, and history, and which city can truly claim to be the capital of the South. On Sunday, they renew the argument when they open against each other at the Georgia Dome.
"Like big sister and little sister," Frazier says.
So which one's big and which one's little?
"Aw, see now, you're trying to start something."
Here's the shorthand: New Orleans is Saturday night, Atlanta is Sunday morning. New Orleans is etouffee and a Pimm's cup, Atlanta is Chick-fil-A and a Coke. In Atlanta, you put a tie around your neck; in New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras beads. New Orleans is Satchmo. Atlanta is MLK.
New Orleans, with its vital port on the Mississippi River, was the dominant city of the South from the end of the Civil War through the 1950s. In the 1860 census, New Orleans had 169,000 residents to Atlanta's 9,600 -- and that's before Gen. Sherman showed up. But Atlanta rose through the 20th century as a business center, an airport hub and the headquarters of the civil rights movement. By 1966, when the Falcons played their first season, Atlanta was clearly the South's most important city. New Orleans, where the Saints started playing in '67, owned the title of most interesting. Atlanta is much bigger now, with 5.5 million people in the metro area compared with 1.2 million in New Orleans. New Orleans is better known worldwide because of its music and culture. Both cities still look down their noses at each other. The Falcons vs. the Saints chafed both cities from the beginning. Each place looks at the other as a symbol of the wrong way to live. Their proxies fight it out on the football field.
So both cities cared about Falcons-Saints from the beginning. It didn't matter to the rest of the country, though, because both teams stunk. For a long time. New Orleans didn't have a winning record until 1987 -- its 21st season in the league. Atlanta had just five winning seasons in its first 20 years, and one was a strike year when the Falcons went 5-4.
"It was a quiet rivalry for a long time because the teams weren't that good," says Jessie Tuggle, who played 14 seasons at linebacker for the Falcons. "It was almost like a college atmosphere. People [outside the two cities] didn't notice it, but it was really intense."
Linebacker Tommy Nobis, the Falcons' first draft pick, remembers more fights on the field when the Falcons played the Saints. "We didn't want to get kicked out of the game," he says. "But you might push a little more, lay on somebody a little bit longer. You're just trying a little bit harder."
But the rivalry cuts even deeper with the fans. When the Saints play the Falcons -- home-and-home since 1970 -- the road fans travel. It's a 90-minute flight between New Orleans and Atlanta, or a seven-hour drive, or half a day on Amtrak on what used to be called the Southern Crescent. (It's just the Crescent now.) Nobis, who played in Atlanta for 11 seasons -- his whole career -- remembers one Falcons fan who got ahold of a ramshackle bus and packed it with fans to take to New Orleans. "A lot of our fans went to New Orleans," Nobis says, "to tour some of their ... business establishments."
There have been a few blowouts in the series. The Falcons won 62-7 in New Orleans in '73 and broke 35 team records. The Saints won 38-0 in '87, the first year New Orleans made the playoffs. The Saints won six in a row in the mid-'80s, and the Falcons won 10 straight in the late '90s. But add it all up and it's basically even. The Falcons lead the all-time series 47 games to 43. The average score: 22-21.
Older fans of both teams remember two games in particular. In '78, in New Orleans, the Falcons were at their own 43 with 19 seconds left, down 17-13. QB Steve Bartkowski heaved the ball down the right sideline -- the Falcons called the play Big Ben Right -- and receiver Wallace Francis tipped it to teammate Alfred Jackson, who sprinted the last 10 yards for the game-winning touchdown. "That Big Ben play about broke my heart," Phil Frazier says.
In '91, the teams met in New Orleans in the wild-card round -- their only postseason meeting. The score was tied at 20 with less than three minutes left when Falcons QB Chris Miller threw a short pass in the right flat to Michael Haynes. Haynes, who grew up in New Orleans, dodged the cornerback and outran another defender for a 61-yard TD.
Saints fans forgave Haynes, sort of, when he signed with New Orleans three years later. The teams -- not just rivals, but rivals in the same division -- generally don't trade with each other. But there's been a lot of crossbreeding through free agency. Current Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton played four years in Atlanta. Quarterback Bobby Hebert, a Louisiana native, played for the Saints, then for the Falcons, then went back to New Orleans to do talk radio. In 2002, Saints receiver Joe Horn brushed the Falcons off his shoulder, saying, "They ain't good enough to be a rival." Five years later, he played his last NFL season in Atlanta. In 2002, Falcons cornerback Ashley Ambrose -- born and raised in New Orleans -- said, "I don't miss seeing a bunch of drunks hanging all over the place." After the season, he signed an $8 million deal with the Saints. You can put up with a lot of drunks for $8 million.
But when it comes to Falcons-Saints dual citizenship, everybody mentions the same player first.
Morten Andersen lives in Atlanta -- way up near Lake Lanier, actually, but the metro Atlanta inkblot covers about half of north Georgia now. He chose Atlanta as a place to raise his two sons. But he still loves New Orleans and goes down there all the time. He wants to make sure Saints fans know that.
Not only is Andersen the NFL's all-time leading scorer, he's the all-time leader for the Saints and the Falcons. He was New Orleans' kicker for 13 years until the Saints cut him after the '94 season, hoping to re-sign him for less. But the Falcons grabbed him instead and he played there for a total of eight seasons. What happened the first time he played in New Orleans as a Falcon? "I got booed. Of course I got booed," he says, laughing. "But I think they were booing the decision that the Saints had made."
He has had a lot of years to study both cities and both sets of fans. Saints fans are more loyal, he says -- they come to every game, just like they did when the Saints were the Aints and fans wore bags on their heads. If the Falcons are bad, Andersen says, the fans don't show up. "Atlanta is a transient city, and there's a lot more to vie for people's time," he says. "If you move to New Orleans, you better become a Saints fan pretty quick or you're going to be lonely."
The fans in both cities are rowdy but polite, at least compared to other NFL fans -- "The Raiders," Andersen deadpans, "were very kind to my mother." He still runs into fans of both teams all the time. He goes to several Falcons games every year and goes to New Orleans to watch Saints games, too.
He just won't go to the Falcons vs. the Saints.
"I walk in the door and people ask me who I'm rooting for," he says. "And the truth is, I root for both teams. So it's a no-win situation for me. I just hope for an entertaining game. And when those two teams play, it's usually entertaining."
Two big things have changed over the course of the rivalry. One, the Falcons and Saints aren't the only NFL teams in the South anymore -- the league has added the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Bucs. (As anybody in the South knows, Tampa barely counts as a Southern city. Don't even ask about Miami.)
The other weird thing is the Falcons and Saints have started beating somebody besides each other. The Falcons have been to the playoffs seven times since '97 and made one Super Bowl, losing to the Broncos. The Saints have made the playoffs six times since '99 and beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Both teams are expected to have a good shot at the playoffs this year -- the Falcons were 4-12 last year, but half the team got hurt.
So the stakes are a little higher now, the cuts a little deeper. In 2011, in the next-to-last game of the season, the Saints were up three touchdowns on the Falcons in the fourth, but New Orleans kept Drew Brees in the game so he could break the NFL single-season passing record at home -- and, coincidentally, against Atlanta. The year after that, Falcons wideout Roddy White, who already had trashed the Saints and their fans on Twitter, added a few more thoughts: "I don't like nothing about the Saints. The colors. The city. Nothing. But they've got some good food, though."
A month or so later, an employee at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta threw eggs at the Saints' team bus as it left the tarmac. The Saints laughed it off and the employee quit, presumably for a lifetime of free drinks at Atlanta sports bars.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith and New Orleans coach Sean Payton, being NFL coaches, generally say diplomatic things about the rivalry -- every game is important, we respect the guys on the other side of the field, that sort of stuff. But Payton did film a commercial last year where he orders dinner in a fancy restaurant: "I'll have the bruschetta, the classic Caesar ... and the roasted falcon."
"Excellent choice," the waiter says.
There has been some discussion on NFL message boards about the 2008 track "Who Dat" by Young Jeezy. "Who dat" is the Saints' all-purpose phrase -- it can mean anything from How's it going? to We just won this game and let's go tear up Bourbon Street. The Saints have played the song at the Superdome during warm-ups. But Young Jeezy is an Atlanta rapper who roots for the Falcons, and you can read the lyrics as a dis against Saints fans. So both sets of fans claim it. Which speaks to a larger point: Like most fighting families, Saints and Falcons fans are more alike than different. (About that family thing: From 2001 to '05, while Michael Vick was quarterback for the Falcons, his cousin Aaron Brooks quarterbacked the Saints.)
The two cities were tied even closer after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 100,000 New Orleanians landed in Atlanta. Tens of thousands decided to stay there for good. And in 2006, when the Saints played their first game in the Superdome after Katrina, it only made sense that the Falcons would be their opponents on "Monday Night Football." A minute-and-a-half into the game, Atlanta lined up to punt. The Saints' Steve Gleason zoomed in untouched and blocked the kick. Curtis Deloatch recovered it in the end zone. The suffering and anger in New Orleans turned into a howl of pleasure.
The Saints commissioned a statue of the blocked punt and put it up outside the Superdome. If you look close, though, Gleason is blocking a kick from a generic punter. The Falcons wouldn't let their logos be used on the statue.
Phil Frazier won't forget who gave up that block, though, the same way he won't forget how it hurt his heart when the Falcons ran Big Ben all those years ago. He has traveled up that road to Atlanta a hundred times, playing gigs and watching games. He has spent nights in Atlanta that felt like New Orleans, and days in New Orleans that felt like Atlanta. "I think we're so close," he says, "but we don't want to admit it."
He plans to be at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. His family and friends in Atlanta have been needling him for weeks already. He has a response queued up if the Saints win. It's a song he helped write a long time ago, right there in Atlanta. The title, and the lyrics, are just four words.
Tommy Tomlinson is a writer in Charlotte, N.C. He was a longtime columnist for The Charlotte Observer and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in commentary. Follow him on Twitter (@tommytomlinson).