Wednesday, September 22, 2004
By Nick Wagoner
By most accounts, the rivalry between the Rams and Saints doesn’t date too far. Sure, the teams first met on Sept. 17, 1967 in New Orleans’ first game, a game the Rams won 27-13. They also squared off in the Rams’ first home game in St. Louis, with the Rams winning 17-13 at Busch Stadium.
Historical firsts and perspectives aside, though, this rivalry never quite had the heat of a Raiders-Chiefs or Packers-Bears matchup. Never, that is, until about 33 years after the teams first met.
It was Nov. 26, 2000, to be exact. That day, the potential for a major rivalry emerged. Little did any of the fans passing through the gates of the now Edward Jones Dome know that they were witnessing the beginning of one of the league’s most heated rivalries. There was little doubt after the first meeting that the blood was about to boil.
New Orleans drew first blood, winning a 31-24 decision in St. Louis. Beating the high-powered Rams on their home turf, a year after they won the Super Bowl was a big blow. This was only the beginning, though, of a five-game series that could be one of the most intense in the history of the league.
The Saints wasted no time in making their presence felt. Coach Jim Haslett called for an onside kick to open the game. The play could have given the Rams excellent field position to start, but the call worked and New Orleans recovered.
Aaron Brooks, New Orleans’ quarterback seeing his first significant playing time as a pro, engineered the victory in his first career start. He threw for 190 yards and a touchdown and ran for 34 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His performance served as a statement that the Saints were ready to emerge as a legitimate contender in the NFC.
New Orleans appeared ready to blowout the Rams, holding a 24-10 third quarter lead. Any person who remembers that St. Louis team remembers that no lead was safe against the Rams’ offense. Trent Green, starting in place of Kurt Warner, who broke a finger against Kansas City in game seven, led a pair of late drives to tie it at 24 with 11:06 to play.
Green hit Az-Zahir Hakim for a 35-yard touchdown and later Ricky Proehl for a 19-yard score. Those two scores set up Brooks’ heroics. He took the Saints on an 85-yard, game-winning drive, aided by a 47-yard pass interference call against Rams’ cornerback Todd Lyght. Brooks capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Doug Brien’s extra point gave New Orleans the final margin.
The loss was the Rams’ third straight at home and put their playoff hopes in serious trouble, dropping them to 8-4. The Saints improved to 8-4, good for a tie with St. Louis atop the division.
New Orleans’ win propelled it toward the playoffs, but after the game, the first verbal shots of the burgeoning rivalry were fired. Rams’ linebacker London Fletcher had two interceptions in the game, one of which he celebrated by kicking the ball at midfield. The Saints took umbrage with Fletcher’s antics, complaining after the game that he wasn’t called for a celebration penalty.
Saints’ players also wasted no time in claiming the victory as one of their biggest. After the game receiver, Willie Jackson made it a point to tell the world what he thought of the victory.
“We shocked the world,” Jackson told the Associated Press. “We shocked everyone but ourselves.”
The world wasn’t shocked much about a month later, when the rivalry went from a small fire to a blazing inferno, with a playoff spot on the line.
This is the first in a five-part review of the games that made the Rams-Saints into one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries.