Saints' NFC South race evokes nightmares of 1991 Falconsby J.W. Miller on 12/11/17
You probably have your own memories of hot division races and how your favorite team either won it at the wire or lost in disappointing fashion. But the 2017 NFC South Division race reminds me of one such instance that has given me bad dreams ever since. In 1991, the Saints rode a sinister rollercoaster in which they enjoyed their greatest triumph only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to a division rival. And the same divisional matchup could happen this year.
After the Falcons defeated the Saints Thursday night and the Panthers came back to beat Minnesota Sunday, only one game separates the three teams. The 9-4 Saints and 9-4 Panthers seem to have the advantage with their schedules, although each team must face 8-5 Atlanta. The irony is that a Falcons sweep could leave all three teams with identical 11-5 records, which could give the Falcons the division title, send the Saints back to Atlanta for a playoff game, and send the Panthers on the road as the last wild card.
In any case, the playoff Saints probably will play their first game against a division rival, which sends the willies up my spine. I recall vividly the 1991 NFC West race in which the Saints won their first division title only to lose their playoff opener to arch-rival Atlanta. The ’91 Falcons were not just a good team, they had swag that the NFL had not seen before, as featured in an NFL Network special last Friday night (and probably in subsequent re-runs). As the promotional blurb said: “1991 saw a young Deion Sanders entering his prime – a primetime, if you will.” It was his third season with the Falcons, and Deion scored five touchdowns four different ways – receiving, punt return, kick return and a pick six. “We brought swag and hip hop to the NFL,” Neon Deion said on the program. “It was fly!”
The coach of that team was the iconoclastic Jerry Glanville, who said that team was “The most fun team ever in pro football.” One member of the team was a second-round QB whose stat line for the season was four pass attempts, no completions and a pick six on his first NFL toss. Glanville thought so little of him that they traded him after the season to the NFL wilderness of Green Bay which Brett Favre quickly turned into a garden of championships.
The Saints started the season like gangbusters, winning their first seven games before losing to the Chicago Bears at the Superdome. Jim Mora's team came back to defeat the Rams and 49ers for a 9-1 Division leading record, but a disastrous four-game losing streak, including a shocking 23-20 overtime loss to the Falcons, dropped them to 9-5 with two games to go. Again, the Saints rallied, shutting out the Raiders and then clinching the division with a 27-3 win at Arizona. We were all confident when we learned our opponent would be the Falcons who finished 10-6 and would have to come to New Orleans.
The teams played even for three quarters, but a 1-yard Dalton Hilliard run gave the Saints a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the Falcons’ Norm Johnson tied it with a 36-yard field goal, Atlanta got the ball back, and disaster loomed. As he had done three times earlier in the two previous games, WR Michael Haynes provided the back-breaker. A 61-yard touchdown catch from QB Chris Miller with 2:41 left gave the division rival Falcons a 27-20 victory. I will never forget the feeling of watching Haynes fly down the field, our hopes dashed once again.
We tried to extract a bit of revenge a couple years later when we signed Haynes to a free agent contract. But it was too late. The fear of playing a division rival in the playoffs will forever evoke images of bad things happening.