All week long the Atlanta Falcons read the incendiary comments emanating from way down yonder in New Orleans. And they smiled.
All week long the Falcons listened to the Saints talk tough. And kept their lips zipped.
All week they heard the sound bites about the mayhem the Saints had planned for the NFC West leaders Sunday at the Superdome. On Sunday, when the talk became cheap, the Falcons responded.
"I think our defense took all that stuff rather personally," Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks said. "The stuff about bloodying our noses about running the football 30 times, about them being ready to answer the bell."
The Saints, so full of themselves after shutting down Dallas last week, blabbered a blue streak leading up to Sunday's showdown, a game with much on the line for each team. But it was the Falcons who went out and protected two winning streaks with a 27-17 victory. It was the Falcons' seventh consecutive triumph in 1998 and eighth consecutive against an old familiar foe, dating to 1995.
And this Deep South Saints-Falcons showdown is supposed to be a blood-and-guts rivalry?
"Eventually they're going to beat us," said Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith, who is in his seventh year in the league. "That's fine. Just so long as it happens after I retire."
To the victor goes the spoils. The bragging rights, too.
"This defense just loves playing the Saints," said tackle Travis Hall, a four-year pro who has yet to lose to New Orleans. "It's fun shutting them down. For some reason we do a good job scheming against them."
Smack is a better word than scheme. And smack the Saints is what the Falcons defense did. The Saints' offense produced a lonely field goal and 216 yards on 10 possessions, the first five of which resulted in a fumble, a punt and three Kerry Collins interceptions that looked more like pop flies than passes. The obviously flustered Collins got the hook from Mike Ditka following the third pick.
"You know the defense is doing something right when the quarterback gets replaced," said nickel back Ronnie Bradford, who had the interception that prompted Ditka's move. "Collins was just throwing the ball up for grabs. You don't do that against us without paying the price."
Meanwhile, the Atlanta offense was racing up and down the field, playing keep-away (the Falcons had an 11:24 advantage in time of possession) as it rolled to 504 yards. The Falcons, and especially quarterback Chris Chandler, passed a particularly good time, lighting up the Saints' secondary for 345 yards passing as diminutive Terance Mathis rang up a franchise record 198 yards receiving and two long-distance scores.
"We all just had a good old time out there," Smith said, flashing a smirk that was worth 1,000 words. "All those challenges in the paper. We saw them. We didn't need them to motivate us, but they did. No way were we taking this game for granted."
The Falcons had too much to play for to take a breather. First, they were determined to protect their one-game lead on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West race. The victory was Atlanta's 12th, matching a franchise record set in 1980, the only time Atlanta won the NFC West, against two defeats. And should Minnesota happen to stumble, the Falcons can claim dome-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Atlanta, which bolted to a 17-0 lead, didn't flinch when the Saints collected a pair of defensive touchdowns to pull to three behind and steal the momentum. The Falcons took the Saints' best shot and fought through the adversity in a hostile environment.
"We're starting to see the big picture," Hall said. "It's weird, but there was no complaining or whining on the sideline after those touchdowns. We knew if we were patient we wouldn't have a problem."
Certainly not against the Saints.
"I saw where Ditka said the Saints would show up, something about being there at 12:05," safety Eugene Robinson said. "Well, we were ready at 12:03. We were laying in the weeds for them."