What's this? The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are actually playing a game that means something?
Indeed, while these teams have been rivals ever since they entered the NFL one year apart in the 1960s, it's been seven long seasons since they both had winning records for one of their semi-annual matchups.
Atlanta (4-1) has its best start in 12 years and a chance to match the winningest start in franchise history with a victory Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The Saints (3-2) are coming off a 31-0 loss to San Francisco, but still have their heads above .500 water.
"It's awesome that both teams have winning records," said running back Jamal Anderson of the Falcons, who are tied with the 49ers for the NFC West lead. "There's already so many little things going into this rivalry that make it a great game."
There's the longtime friendship between the coaches, Atlanta's Dan Reeves and Mike Ditka of the Saints. Also, Ditka spiced things up this week when he decided to start former Flcons quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver instead of Danny Wuerffel.
"All we're trying to do is find a way to get better," said Ditka, whose team has lost two consecutive games. "I hope he can give us some stability and some leadership."
For now, that role falls to Tolliver, who has thrown only nine passes this season. Ditka decided to bench Wuerffel because he was worried how his young quarterback would cope with the Falcons' pass rush.
Already, Wuerffel has been sacked 23 times, nearly five times per game.
"It really has nothing to do with Danny," Ditka said. "We just want a little more mobility against a good pass-rushing team. Danny had trouble with them last year. Danny holds the ball a little longer than Billy Joe."
| Mike Ditka takes the reins from Danny Wuerffel (center) and hands them to Billy Joe Tolliver. (AP) |
Last season, the Falcons lost their first five games before beating the Saints 23-17 at the Superdome, largely because of a franchise-record 10 sacks. Chuck Smith had five of the sacks, repeatedly getting by Pro Bowl tackle William Roaf.
"You never forget a game like that," Roaf said. "Chuck just whipped my butt last year. That game is always going to be in my mind."
Smith has put that day behind him.
"This is a new year. These are two different teams," he said. "This game is a lot bigger than last year. People were focusing on me and Willie because both teams were out of the playoff race. This year, there's so many other things going on. This is way bigger than me and Willie this year."
In their secon meeting of 1997, Roaf shut out Smith, but the Falcons still had seven sacks, a season-high four interceptions and recovered a fumble. New Orleans managed only 173 yards in the 20-3 loss, and Ditka was so disconsolate after the game he threatened to quit.
The next day, Ditka changed his mind. After the season, he signed a contract extension with the Saints and is committed to rebuilding one of the league's sorriest franchises.
"I think the attitude is better than t was a year ago," he said. "Maybe we have some better personnel. Or maybe we're just tired of getting kicked all the time."
The Saints were kicked around last week by San Francisco, proving they're still a long way from challenging for the NFC West title. Nevertheless, Ditka insists he's at peace with himself and committed to the task.
"We all go through those little things in life," he said. "I was not very rational after that game in Atlanta last year. There are some tremendous lows in this game, and the lows tend to be much lower than the highs are high. I went through a period where I was questioning myself more than anything."
The Falcons, who have rivaled the Saints for incompetence over the years, seem to be on the right track under Reeves' leadership. The running game is clicking -- Anderson has gained more than 100 yards three weeks in a row -- and Chris Chandler is showing that, when healthy, he might be one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Since reaching the midway point last season with a 1-7 record, Atlanta has won 10 of 13 games.
"We had to learn how to win games," Chandler said. "In the first half of last year, we found a way to lose them. It's a fine line. It's really easy to lose games in this league and real hard to win them. But the difference between that is minimal.
"You have to get yourself believing you're going to win, and then you have to get used to it. That's kind of where we're at right now."
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