ATLANTA (AP) – Poor records never have cooled the Saints-Falcons rivalry, so New Orleans receiver Joe Horn warns Atlanta’s players not to expect anything but the normal intensity in tonight’s game.

The Saints (3-9) have lost seven of their last eight games. The Falcons (7-5) are trying to move back into one of the NFC’s six playoff spots. Atlanta’s final three games are against playoff-caliber teams, but Horn says the Falcons know better than to overlook the Saints.

“I truly believe they know our game is going to be one of the hardest on their schedule this year,” Horn said.

The teams have more in common than entering the league about the same time – Atlanta in 1966, followed by New Orleans in 1967. They also share mostly inglorious histories. The Saints had not won a playoff game until 2000. The Falcons still have never recorded back-to-back winning seasons.

More often than not, at least one of the two teams in the NFL’s longest Southern rivalry has been eliminated from playoff contention by December.

Through all the struggles, the fans usually bring a party atmosphere to the rivalry. Before this year, Falcons fans would head to New Orleans for its famous party scene. Saints fans have always traveled in large numbers to Atlanta, bringing along a hardcore passion for tailgating.

Hurricane Katrina knocked the Saints out of New Orleans this season, and the largest number of Saints fans in Atlanta may still be evacuees who have made a temporary or permanent home in Georgia.

No one expects a normal turnout by Saints fans Monday night. Even so, Horn says he tells his teammates to find their party spirit. That won’t be easy, considering the Saints had to spend the week using high school facilities in San Antonio, including a makeshift weight room under a tent in a parking lot.

“I tell them to keep this party going,” Horn said. “Back in the day, back in the hood, we used to go to these parties, and when a fight broke out and they stopped the fight and threw the guys out that were fighting we used to yell Hey, DJ, keep this party going!’

“That’s the way it is. That’s what I tell them. … Don’t look at the record. Don’t worry about where we are at, in a high school parking lot. It doesn’t matter. We still have to play. The NFL must go on.”

The Falcons, who advanced to the NFC championship game last season, seemed certain to return to the playoffs when they were 6-2. Losses in three of their last four games have made Monday night’s Georgia Dome matchup a must-win game.

“I’d like to think the guys in this locker room and people that are in this organization will respond the right way,” said Falcons coach Jim Mora.

“It’s a divisional game, so we know it’s going to be tough,” Falcons quarterback Michael Vick said. “They are going to come to play. I’ve got my “cousin’ on the other side of the ball and he’s going to be ready to play and do stuff. It’s on Monday night and there will be a lot of hype. We just have to make sure that we outplay them and try to make more plays than them.”

Vick passed for only 112 yards, completing 11 of 23 attempts, in Atlanta’s 34-31 win over the Saints on Oct. 16. More recently, his passing numbers have increased – along with the Falcons’ losses.

Vick threw two interceptions in losing his first game as a starter against Carolina, 24-6 last week.

The Falcons’ win over the Saints in October was the 18th time since 1990 that games between the rivals have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Extra motivation – at least for the Saints – was added to the rivalry by the way the Falcons won the first game this season. A defensive holding call gave Atlanta’s Todd Peterson a second chance to kick a winning field goal. Peterson missed from 41 yards before the penalty set up his winner from 36 yards in the final seconds.

Saints coach Jim Haslett questioned the call. Even the Falcons acknowledged they were fortunate to leave San Antonio with a win.

“You put it in your pocket and you get on the plane as fast as you can and you get home,” Mora said.

Haslett says beating the Falcons on prime-time TV wouldn’t make the team’s season. “We’re still 3-9 right now,” Haslett said. “It’s disappointing.”

Still, it’s more than just another game.

“I think anytime you play on Sunday night, Monday night, players get excited about playing,” Haslett said. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about getting them ready to play the game, especially being in front of their peers and their families and everybody else around the country.”

AP-ES-12-11-05 1450EST

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