Some recollections of former Saints coach Sean Payton

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton makes the "choke" sign during a game with the Atlanta Falcons.

Credit: NBC Sports and NFL Network

Credit: NBC Sports and NFL Network

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton makes the "choke" sign during a game with the Atlanta Falcons.

When the Saints played the Falcons over the past 16 seasons, Sean Payton was at the controls for the arch-rivals minus his one-year Bountygate suspension.

I covered all of those games and they usually were highly competitive and spirited battles. Payton won the first four meetings against the Falcons, beating Jim Mora’s teams 23-3 and 31-13 during the 2006 season.

In 2007, he had an easier task with quarterback Michael Vick in trouble with federal law enforcement authorities. The Saints beat the Falcons 22-16 and 34-14, the latter in coach Bobby Petrino’s last game.

The former coach soon would be calling the hogs out in the Ozarks on television.

Mike Smith took over for the Falcons in 2008.

In the first meeting at the Georgia Dome, Smith’s defensive backs ran the Saints’ eccentric routes better than their receivers. The Falcons batted down 14 passes and appeared ready to dominate Payton and quarterback Drew Brees for years to come. The Saints won the second meeting 29-25.

Both teams entered the gloried period of their rivalry, the rare times that both teams were competitive and fighting for the playoffs and Super Bowl titles.

The Falcons went to the playoffs after the 2008 season. After the 2009 season, the Saints won Super Bowl 44 in part because of a daring onside kick call by Payton to start the second half. He wanted to take a possession away from Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Current Falcons punter Thomas Morstead made the kick. Former Georgia Tech standout Chris Reis was a folk hero in New Orleans after recovering it.

The Saints went on to win their first Super Bowl 31-17 and finally earn the respect of the nation. The ‘Aints paper-bag days were over.

For the first time in franchise history, the Falcons went to the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 2010-12. The Saints also went to the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

Payton was suspended for the 2012 season for the Saints’ bounty system, which was instituted under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

After the game in which the Falcons batted down all those passes, Payton adjusted to Smith’s defense. Payton won seven of his next eight meetings against Smith’s Falcons.

The meetings always were colorful.

There was Thomas DeCoud’s sack of Drew Brees on a safety blitz in 2009. The Saints would win the game 35-10 to open their Super Bowl season 7-0.

The Saints had plenty of swagger under Payton.

After a 17-14 win over the Falcons on “Monday Night Football,” a group of defenders led by linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to the Georgia Dome field and took celebratory pictures on the logo on Dec. 27, 2010. It was fifth consecutive game by the rivals that was decided by one score.

The reigning Super Bowl champs secured a berth in the playoffs, but there was no rematch, as they lost to Seattle in the wild-card round. The No. 1-seeded Falcons were upset 48-21 by the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs at home.

After New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, the “Rebirth” statue was unveiled, with Saints safety Steve Gleason blocking a Michael Koenen punt. The Falcons didn’t want their logo on the statute.

The Saints never seemed to forget the DeCoud hit on Brees. A few years later, Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro blasted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with a late hit in the 2013 season opener.

He was fined for the play that owner Arthur Blank stewed about for most of the season. Blank later let it known that he was not happy that none of the Falcons stood up to Vaccaro and protested the play.

He didn’t want a fight, but a stern objection. That offseason, the Falcons went on a toughness campaign.

After 2012, both teams hit hard times again.

The Saints had three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2013-15. The Falcons couldn’t stomach Smith going 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014 and hired Dan Quinn.

While the Saints stayed with Payton through their tough period, the Falcons switched coaches.

Over six seasons, Payton went 8-4 against Quinn’s teams and returned the Saints to title contenders. They won an unprecedented four consecutive NFC South titles, while the Falcons won their second NFC title after the 2016 season.

The Falcons failed to match Payton’s one Super Bowl title, and they’ve been reminded of it every visit to New Orleans with various 28-3 gags and scoreboard messages.

Now, with Payton gone, maybe the Falcons can regain the upper hand in this rivalry.

Payton was 21-9 against the Falcons, who now own a slight 54-52 edge in one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries.

Credit: The Associated Press

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Credit: The Associated Press

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