You don’t have to know much about the often-heated 44-year-old rivalry between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons to know that it’s no ordinary football game.
Apparently, all you have to do is be around for a few years - like Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a four-year veteran who knew little about the Deep South rivalry while growing up in upstate New York.
“I’ve learned that Saints fans do not like Falcons fans, and vice versa,” Dunbar said. “There’s some chirping.”
Chirping, trash-talking and good-natured barbs - and that’s just in the stands - are all part of an 83-game series that will be renewed when the Saints (6-3) and Falcons (5-3) meet again at noon Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
On the field, Dunbar, who will start at middle linebacker for a second straight week with Jonathan Vilma sidelined by a knee injury, knows what to expect.
Over the years, 25 of the games have been decided by a field goal or less - including the past three. They’ve had to go to overtime five times since they met for the first time on Nov. 26, 1967, a 27-24 win for the Saints in old Tulane Stadium.
“You’re going to get a three-point game, an overtime game,” Dunbar said. “It’s like Ali-Frazier. Expect 15 rounds. Somebody is going to get knocked down ? somebody is going to get up. But it’s going to be a tough one.”
Expect more of the same Sunday considering a half-game separates the two teams at the top of the NFC South standings. A win for the Saints would give them a 1-1/2-game lead going into their bye week.
“More recently, I don’t know if the term is a rivalry, but (the games) are more important because the two teams are having success,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Certainly, we understand and value and appreciate the importance of a divisional game against a very good divisional team.”
The Saints, who are coming off a 27-16 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs in another NFC South game, would like to create a little separation with the Falcons with a week off looming.
But it’s not going to be easy with the Falcons starting to heat up after a 2-3 start. They’ve won their past three games by a combined score of 85-40, including a 31-7 bashing of the winless Indianapolis Colts last week.
After struggling on both sides of the ball early in the season, they’ve come on - especially on offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan, All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are starting to complement the hard running of Michael Turner - making them more dangerous than earlier this season.
“I think they’ve found their balance; they’re an explosive team,” Payton said. “They have a lot of real good playmakers. I’d say they’re playing as good defensively as we’ve seen.
“They’ve done a lot of things well in these (three) wins, and it’s not surprising. They’re a good football team.”
The Saints, however, are more concerned with what they do. They found a nice blend of run and pass in the victory over the Bucs last week with 195 rushing yards and 258 passing yards, which they would like to continue through the second half of the season.
“For that game, it was a point of emphasis and it was something we felt was going to be important to win that game,” Payton said. “I think we’re a better football team when we’re able to rush the ball as effectively as we did (against the Bucs). I think it helps us in a lot of ways.
“It helps our defense, it helps set up our play-action pass, and there are a lot of other things that are residuals when you have that type of success running the football.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has 3,004 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and a 100.6 passer rating for the season, certainly likes it.
“When you’re rushing the ball first and second down, you’re getting chunks of yardage and you’re in manageable situations, which really opens up your playbook,” he said. “You’re going to end up converting more third downs, you’re going to sustain drives, you’re going to wear down a defense.
“I think it just leads to a lot of good things,” he said.”
The Falcons have experienced those same things in their last three games.
They’re rushed for 166, 129 and 163 yards behind Turner, who has 692 yards and seven TDs, and had more than 325 total yards each time.
“The big thing is we’ve just executed better than we did earlier in the year,” said Ryan, who’s thrown for 1,958 yards and 12 TDs. “We made too many mental mistakes, turned the ball over too much, and didn’t give ourselves a chance to win the games. We’ve done a better job the last few weeks.”
“We’re getting better week in and week out, that’s the key. The key is improving as the year goes on, and we’ve improved this season.”