Pulling for Saints hard for Falcons fans

Downtown Connector and transcendental meditation.

The Varsity and good cholesterol.

New Orleans Saints and Super Bowl.

But here it is, one week until the once famously hapless Saints co-star with the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. For Atlanta and its Falcons-leaning fan base, that poses some interesting sticking points.

The Saints, of course, are the Falcons' longest-standing rival. For decades, these lost and wandering franchises had little else going for them except a burning desire to win their twice-annual meetings and avoid complete irrelevance.

The balance of this rivalry has tilted with New Orleans making its first Super Bowl. No longer can Atlanta people respond to any Saints taunt by bringing up the Falcons' single Super Bowl appearance, now 11 years in the rearview mirror.

Then there is the possibility of New Orleans actually winning this thing — and all the ammo that would supply for years to come for those legions of Saints fans that march into the Georgia Dome on game day. That is almost beyond reckoning.

But truthfully, wouldn't you love to be in New Orleans next week to witness the scene in any French Quarter bar when this Super Bowl launches? Although 420 miles may be long way to go just for a hangover.

Just how much of the New Orleans celebration can Atlanta fans join in and still feel good about themselves?

If you put your ear to the ground, you'll hear that everyone else will be on the side of the Saints. They are hard to resist. Devastating hurricanes tend to elicit support.

Indianapolis hardly prompts the same visceral sympathy. And its quarterback, Peyton Manning (a New Orleans native), is involved in so many television ads that rooting for him is like rooting for MasterCard.

A Wall Street Journal writer suggested that cheering against the Saints would be like cheering against Tiger Woods' wife, Elin.

President Barack Obama has endorsed the Saints. The team's quarterback, Drew Brees, as much as said that God was wearing black and gold: "I believe [God] does have a purpose for us and ... that's to win a Super Bowl championship for this city," he told WWL radio.

Listen to Father Tony Ricard, the Saints' Catholic chaplain, whose 8th Ward church was washed away by Katrina. And try not to feel a tug in that direction. "The city is at the stage [of recovery] that it just wants to celebrate. We're not finished with it, but at least there's a vision that the end is near. And the Saints in the Super Bowl says that things are goooood."

Even more passionate in his explanation of the connection between New Orleans and its football team is one of the city's cornerstone restaurant owners, John Besh:

"The Saints are a representation of the way our city has rebuilt itself. They are a symbol not only of hope, but also of hard work, passion and enthusiasm we as a people hold dear. They aren't just our team. They are our family, our boys."

The voices of New Orleans will tell you that it is OK to join this Saints krewe. There is plenty of room, even for old rivals.

"You've got the underdog syndrome. And it's a feel-good story," said former Saints and Falcons quarterback Bobby "the Cajun Cannon" Hebert, when asked how he would convince his friends in Atlanta to back New Orleans. "You take a poll in different parts of the country and, unless they are [Peyton] Manning fans or live in Indiana, most people would cheer for the Saints over the Colts."

Besides, many Saints fans claim they cheered on the Falcons during their Super Bowl appearance. "I've had to hold my nose when rooting for the Falcons in the past. We in the South need to stick together," Besh said.

"Heaven forbid if a northern team wins it," Ricard suggested.

"We can be brothers for one day."

We've heard from the father, now here's the Pope. Lionel "Da Pope" Alphonso Sr. is a noted Saints fan who, since a papal visit to New Orleans in 1987, has been going to games impersonating a pope. He has traveled in costume to many games in Atlanta.

"The Atlanta fans love me. When I'm there, I tailgate with them and we have a great time. They always talk about what a rivalry this is, but it's a friendly rivalry," Alphonso said.

"Yes, I rooted for Atlanta in its Super Bowl. The only time I pull against Atlanta is when you play us. You have to pull for the team in your division. But I guess the fans there will have to decide for themselves."

So, Atlanta, can you find it in your heart to do this? Can you actually sing these Saints praises on a Sunday?

Saints marchin' in

Now that the Saints finally have made the Super Bowl, there are four current franchises that have not played in the big game:

-- Detroit Lions (1934-present)

-- Cleveland Browns (1950-1995, 1999-present)

-- Jacksonville Jaguars (1995-present)

-- Houston Texans (2002-present)

Super Bowl

Who: New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts

When: Feb. 7, 6:25 p.m. (CBS)

Where: Miami

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.