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With Saints a win away from Atlanta’s Super Bowl, Falcons fans on edge

The New Orleans Saints are just one win away from playing in the Super Bowl right here in Atlanta, in the gleaming new stadium that’s home to their biggest, albeit title-less rival.

And if they’re being honest, long-suffering Falcons fans from the mayor on down really would prefer to see the Saints fail to punch their proverbial ticket. Even for a city that’s grown accustomed to having sports-related disappointment and despair delivered in extraordinary fashion, this would be a new level of indignity.

“All I can say is, we don’t need no ‘who dat’ here,” Georgia State Rep. Dewey McClain said this week, referencing the Saints’ infamous battle cry. “All I can say is, they won’t get no Capitol invite.”

McClain, a linebacker-turned-legislator from Lilburn, played for the Falcons from 1976 to 1981. It was an eventful run in the rivalry that included two games decided by last-second Hail Marys and another by a blocked punt.

September 23, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons fans sit dejected in the stands after falling 43-37 to the New Orleans Saints during overtime in an NFL football game on Sunday, Sept 23, 2018, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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McClain knows that this idea, Atlanta fans’ aversion to the Saints appearing in the local Super Bowl (not to mention taking over the Falcons’ practice facilities and locker room), is not a manufactured media phenomenon.

It is not merely a sentiment blown out of proportion after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — who’s tasked with playing gracious host while her city puts on the western hemisphere’s biggest sporting event — made a joke about wanting anyone but the Saints to make it here.

“I know there’s going to be a bounty on my head for saying that,” Bottoms said. “But if it can’t be the Falcons, then hey, as long as it’s not the Saints, then I’m happy.”

Response from the Big Easy was quick and a lot meaner.

“I’m disappointed that she felt that way, but we are still coming,” said Jay Banks, a New Orleans city councilman. “And it’s not our fault that her team sucks. I mean, if they could win, then they wouldn’t have this problem.”

Ouch.

‘Welcome to the couch’

And the tension between the two cities’ fan bases is not really about a single game, either.

Atlanta and New Orleans are both jewels of the New South, but in different ways.

New Orleans is world-famous for having a good time, a destination steeped in a multicultural gumbo pot that’s been simmering for some 300 years, to paraphrase the city’s visitors bureau.

Atlanta is the slightly bigger, slightly more serious cousin, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement that has become an international city and continues to redefine itself.

The relationship between the two cities strengthened after Hurricane Katrina turned as many as 100,000 New Orleans’ residents into accidental Atlantans — though the football rivalry didn’t really need any more juice.

01/18/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Barber Maurice Combs (center) defends his stance on his love the Atlanta Falcons while speaking with a customer at Off The Hook Barber Shop in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill community, Friday, January 18, 2019. Combs says he will be rooting for the New Orleans Saints if they make it to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. He hopes his cheering will curse the team as they play. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Part of the growing dread Atlanta fans feel is that, should the Saints should defeat the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday and then hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy in our house after a Super Bowl victory, the gloating and shaming from Saints fans would be merciless and eternal.

The New England Patriots, who mounted the largest comeback in NFL history to beat the Falcons in 2017’s Super Bowl, could also make it to Atlanta, presenting the potential for even more salt in the wound. It would be a kind of worst worst-case scenario.

Saints fans commemorated the Falcons blowing that 28-3 Super Bowl lead — Atlanta’s best-ever chance at getting their own Lombardi — with multiple Mardi Gras floats.

“I ain’t even trying to think like that,” Maurice Combs, a 45-year-old Atlanta native, said Thursday. He’s a barber at Off the Hook barbershop in Castleberry Hill, just a few blocks south of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“‘ Welcome to the couch,’ ” Combs said, referring to the Saints’ season coming to an end this weekend. “That’s what I want to see. Them on the couch next to us.”

He’s not alone in hoping the Saints’ run ends this weekend. But there are plenty of talkative folks on the other side of things too.

Kay Hackney is an administrator of the Facebook group called “Atlanta Saints Fans,” which has nearly 2,000 members. The Acworth resident said the Saints faithful are “through the roof excited” about the possibility of their team playing in “Superdome East” — a reference to New Orleans’ home stadium.

“To win the Super Bowl in your most hated opponent’s stadium?” Hackney said. “Yeah, we couldn’t let them live this down. We’ll second line down Northside Drive like it’s Canal Street.”

Second lines, if you’re wondering, are musical celebratory processions.

December 24, 2017 New Orleans: Saints fans heckle Falcons linebacker Deion Jones as he leaves the field falling 23-13 to the Saints in a NFL football game on Sunday, December 24, 2017, in New Orleans. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The dread is real

Matt Chernoff, a Dunwoody native, hosts afternoon drive on Atlanta’s 680 the Fan. His radio show, Chuck & Chernoff, heralded last week as “Aints Hate Week” — and it’s spent this week hosting “Part Deux.”

“This is one of the few times that The City That’s Too Busy To Hate can really hate,” Chernoff said. “If you were born a Falcons fan, you were born to dislike the Saints.”

Part of that birthright is due to the fact that Falcons-Saints games are almost always closely fought affairs. But even that is a product of a larger shared sports history.

The Falcons’ first NFL season was in 1966, the Saints’ in 1967. They’ve spent more than half a century in the same division, and the first few of those decades wallowing in comparable degrees of ineptitude — meaning the bragging rights afforded by their annual matchups were often just about all the joy available for fans.

“Not only do we have to represent and defend our team in New Orleans,” said Che Alexander, the senior vice president of a massive Falcons fan group called ATL Cast. “Now we have to defend our team at home.”

01/18/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Barber and owner of Off The Hook Barber Shop Karl Booker (left) shares a laugh with his customer, Keino Robinson, as they discuss football at the shop in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill community, Friday, January 18, 2019. Booker, a Dallas Cowboys fan, believes that if the New Orleans Saints make it to Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta’s economy, for all areas of the city, will be impacted positively. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

So, you wonder: Are feelings about the Saints potential playing in Atlanta’s Super Bowl a real thing for Falcons fans?

Ask Josh Garmon of Brookhaven how he feels about the possibility: “Have you ever had food poisoning? What about a stomach ulcer? How about one of those 24-hour stomach bugs?”

Or ask Ruby Shackelford, a season ticket holder from Carrollton, what she thinks: “I intend to root for whoever they are playing, even if that means cheering on the Patriots.”

Or ask Combs, the barber from Castleberry Hill, what he thinks the two weeks prior to the Super Bowl would be like should the Saints win on Sunday.

“I plan on taking my vacation,” he said. “So I wouldn’t know.”

He’s joking.

Maybe.

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