Originally written December 22, 2011 on Fox Sports South:
It took a while, but this rivalry has come a long way since both teams entered the league in 1966. With the NFC South title on the line, the Falcons (9-5) face the New Orleans Saints (11-3) at 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. "I found out very quickly four years ago that this is the biggest rival that the Atlanta Falcons have," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I don't know the reason behind it. I have my ideas and maybe it's because they came into the league about the same time. But in terms of ramping it up, not only the players but the fans, it seems like this is the biggest rival that we have." The last six games in the rivalry have been decided by a touchdown or less. The last four games have been decided by a field goal and two of those games have gone into overtime. "I think that its two evenly matched, competitive football teams that want to go out and compete against each other," Smith said. "We have a lot of familiarity with one another. They are familiar with us. We're familiar with them." While both teams are stocked with offensive weapons, the battle is usually won in the trenches. The Falcons' starters along the defensive line are right end John Abraham, right tackle Jonathan Babineaux, left tackle Corey Peters and left end Ray Edwards. The key reserves are ends Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury, and tackles Peria Jerry and Vance Walker. The Saints' starters along the offensive line are left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Carl Nicks, center Brian de la Puente, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief. The key reserves are centerguard Matt Tennant and tackles Pat McQuistan and William Robinson. Abraham is coming off a monster 3 12-sack game and has played strong over the past three games. Bushrod is part of a unit that protects quarterback Drew Brees like he's a gold bar in Fort Knox. The Falcons have 30 sacks, which ranks 19th in the league. The Saints' line has given up only 23 sacks which is the fourth-lowest total in the league. Evans and Nicks both went to the Pro Bowl last year and are widely considered the best guard tandem in the league. The development of Bushrod and Strief has solidified the unit. "Bushrod was a starter last year," Smith said. "Strief was their extra offensive lineman in their big package. He's a guy that has stepped into a starting role this year. Again, they've done a very good job with protecting the quarterback and also, running the football with their run blocking." The Saints have a major weight advantage over the smaller and quicker Falcons. Bushrod is 42 pounds heavier than Abraham, Nicks is 43 pounds heavier that Babineaux, Evans is 13 pounds heavier than Peters and Strief is 42 pounds heavier than Edwards. "It's a big offensive line," Smith said. "The two guards and the two tackles are really big men and they've done a very good job. I think you can see by the statistics that they've put up, not only scoring but passing and rushing yards." The unit has been sturdy over the last six games after they gave up six sacks in their upset 31-21 loss to St. Louis on Oct. 30. Behind the line the Saints are averaging 456.7 yards per game (first in the league), 331.4 yards passing (first) and 125.4 rushing (eighth). The starters along the Falcons' offensive line are left tackle Will Svitek, left guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, right guard Joe Hawley and right tackle Tyson Clabo. The key reserves are tackle Kirk Chambers, guard Garrett Reynolds and center Brett Romberg. The Saints' starters on the defensive line are left end Cameron Jordan, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and right end Will Smith. The key reserves are ends Junior Galette, Turk McBride and Jeff Charleston and tackles Shaun Rogers and Tom Johnson. The Falcons' current starting unit -- the Falcons have used four different groups this season -- should be in better sync for this matchup with the Saints. In the first meeting, Svitek was making his third start this season and Hawley, who has given up 4.5 sacks, was making his second NFL start at right guard. The Falcons held up well in pass protection, giving up just one sack and two quarterback hits. Since a bumpy start to the season the unit has pulled things together in pass protection. They have given up 26 sacks, which is the ninth lowest total in the league. However, they have given up 74 quarterback hits, which ranks 6th in the league. The Saints have allowed 109.9 yards rushing per game, which ranks 13th in the league. They have generated 31 sacks, but safety Roman Harper is the team leader, with 7.5. Smith is tops along the defensive line with 6.5. Galette has 4.5 sacks. Despite not having a sack, the Falcons are impressed with Jordan, a rookie. "I think that he's off to a really good start in his career," Smith said. "I think he's going to be a guy that we're going to have to contend with for a long time."

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