The Atlanta Falcons will need all the help they can get when the New Orleans Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Thursday. The Falcons have already braved a hostile Mercedes-Benz Superdome when they lost the first meeting to New Orleans. The Falcons defense might be hoping Atlanta will return the favor to Drew Brees and the Saints offense.
But will the fans in Atlanta be up to the challenge?
A Fickle History
The Atlanta Falcons have had a long, tumultuous affair with the fans in Atlanta. Prior to the Mike Smith renaissance, only the fans in the stands were less consistent than the Falcons on the field. From empty seats to silent fans, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the Georgia Dome were not exactly hostile territory for visiting teams.
Warren Sapp related as much while being interviewed by Jamie Dukes on Atlanta's 92.9 The Game. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great revealed that the Buccaneers used to refer to the Georgia Dome as "Raymond James North." Sapp went on to explain how the Tampa Bay players loved to watch their fans take over the Georgia Dome as Atlanta fans made an early exit.
Despite a vastly improved product on the field, Atlanta fans still show signs of inconsistency. Notoriously late, fans can be seen filing in well into the first quarter. Despite an 8-1 record, there were thousands of empty seats when the Arizona Cardinals came to town.
Even when the fans do show up en masse, many require coaching in cheering etiquette. The Atlanta Falcons have resorted to using pre-recorded videos of players encouraging the crowd to make noise on defense and urging silence on offense.
Atlanta's fan struggles were epitomized by an incident during the game against the Carolina Panthers earlier in 2012. Down by six midway through the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan desperately tried to lead the Falcons down the field. Relying on the no-huddle, the Falcons should have been able to rely on the fans to be quiet. Instead, fans started the wave. For several minutes, noise traveled around the stadium as the game hung in the balance.
Despite early game errors, Falcons fans do seem more prepared for prime-time games. The crowd arrives earlier and enthusiastic. Even during down years, the Atlanta fans seem to relish night-time spotlight.
The Georgia Dome was a virtual ghost town during the 2007 season. Yet when a vastly superior Saints team came in for a Monday night matchup, the Falcons fans had their best turnout of the season.
Falcons fans had a strong showing earlier in 2012 when the Denver Broncos had a prime-time visit. The Falcons will be hoping the fans can return to that form.
Might Get Ugly in the Stands
New Orleans Saints fans have always traveled well, especially to Atlanta. Visually flamboyant, visitors with Mardi Gras beads and gold-glittered umbrellas are easy to spot. They are very vocal as well, and the two fanbases often create friction in the stands.
The Falcons and Saints players have already taken verbal shots at each other this year. Then Saints players alleged their team bus had been pelted with eggs in Atlanta. This only adds to the volatile mixture of rival fans and pride on the line.
If either team begins to dominate, it may be a long night for those wearing the wrong colors.