FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) – The Atlanta Falcons are used to getting booed in the Big Easy. They’ve never had a whole nation pulling against them.

The Falcons are clearly cast in the bad-guy role as they prepare to head off to New Orleans for Monday night’s emotion-packed reopening of the Superdome, the scene of horrific suffering during Hurricane Katrina.

“Everybody knows what happened down there,” Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “Everyone is going to be rooting for those guys. We’re rooting for those guys. We want to make sure everything is in order down there, make sure everything is headed in the right direction.”

But, Hall quickly adds, “Every game we play, we go out there to win. My heart goes out to those guys, but we’re going down there to win a game. That’s the only thing on our minds.”

Indeed, the Falcons find themselves in a bit of an uncomfortable position, not unlike another Atlanta team, baseball’s Braves, when they faced the New York Mets five years ago in the first game at Shea Stadium after the 9-11 attacks.

While the Braves weren’t all that upset about losing to the Mets that night – after all, the baseball season is 162 games and one defeat didn’t slow Atlanta’s drive for another division title – the Falcons can’t afford that sort of benevolence.

Not in the 16-game NFL, where every game is played with a huge sense of urgency and one loss can transform an entire season.

The Falcons and Saints are both 2-0, meaning the winner of this one claims the early upper hand in the highly competitive NFC South.

Outside of Atlanta, the Saints are a clear-cut favorite – and, no, we’re not talking about the betting line.

They are the ones who spent all last season on the road after New Orleans was devastated by Katrina, leaving their iconic stadium in shambles. They are the ones providing a much-needed diversion for residents still coping with the horrors of what happened a year ago and struggling to get their lives back together.

Their beloved Saints have become a rallying point, their return to a sold-out Superdome showing that the Big Easy may be down, but it’s not out.

The Falcons are nothing more than bit players in this setting.

If this was all being scripted for maximum effect, New Orleans would win on a last-second touchdown, its fans would put aside all those terrible memories for a Mardi Gras-sized celebration, then both teams would join hands .

in the middle of the field to show it was more important than a mere football game.

Just don’t expect Atlanta to play along.

“We weren’t given a script that says, ‘You’re going back to the dome for the first time since Katrina. Here’s what you’re supposed to do. When the running back comes through, you lay down,”‘ Milloy said. “We didn’t get that script. It’s still going to be a football game. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But we’re going to play hard.”

Back in 2001, the Braves couldn’t help but feel the emotion when they arrived in New York to face the Mets, just 10 days after the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center.

On their bus ride into the city, Atlanta’s players saw the gaping hole in the skyline where the twin towers once stood. Manager Bobby Cox actually went to the site on the day of the game and got past the police lines when a patrolman recognized him.

“I’ll always remember the looks in everybody’s eyes throughout the city,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said on the fifth anniversary of 9-11. “People had their mouths open, eyes wide, a blank stare on their faces. I don’t think any of us really realized the magnitude of what was going on until we drove into that city that first night. There was a haze over the city from miles away. Everybody was walking around like zombies.”

Confronted with the magnitude of that disaster, it was hard to get all that upset when Mike Piazza hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning that rallied the Mets to a 3-2 victory.

“I didn’t want the circumstances to be that way,” Jones said, “but I’m glad the Atlanta Braves had the opportunity to go up there and provide some relief, however short-lived it may have been.”

New Orleans is more than a year along in its recovery, and the Falcons will be much more sheltered during their one-night stay. They’ll fly in on Sunday and leave right after the game, which doesn’t leave time for an eye-opening visit to the devastated Ninth Ward or a sentimental tours along the shuttered St. Charles trolley line.

The Falcons only chance to get a glimpse of the destruction will be on the short bus ride from the airport to their hotel.

“For us, it’s going to be like it always was: everything functioning, everything looking good,” Hall said. “Where we are will be nice and safe and secure. It’s going to look like the old New Orleans. It’s like a regular trip.”

Of course, this won’t be like any other trip to New Orleans, a city the Falcons have visited all but one season since 1970 (their ’87 game at the Superdome was canceled because of a players strike).

The teams are longtime rivals – the Falcons entering the league in 1966, the Saints coming aboard a year later. They have been in the same division since ’70, when both were inexplicably placed in the old NFC West.

Separated by an eight-hour drive, thousands of fans from both cities have made an annual rite of hitting the road when the Saints are in Atlanta or the Falcons are in New Orleans, providing a college-style atmosphere. Beyond that, the teams are linked by their historic struggles on the field; Atlanta has been to one Super Bowl, New Orleans has never made it. Together, they have combined for zero NFL championships.

Maybe this will be the year that one of them breaks through. Both are off to promising starts, with the Falcons knocking off the other two teams in the division – Carolina and Tampa Bay – while New Orleans kept pace with a pair of road wins.

For that very reason, the Falcons can’t afford to get caught up in the sentimentality of the moment.

“We have certainly compassion for the region down there and the devastation they’ve been through. It’s awful,” defensive end Patrick Kerney said. “But we have to stay focused on what happens between the line. We can’t get distracted by the reopening of the Superdome.

“It’s a special thing. We realize that. But we have to take care of business.”


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