FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons were heading back to the locker room after pregame warmups when Ike Reese gave some inside info to his new teammates.
"They're going to stomp on our logo," Reese said, motioning back to his former teammates, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sure enough, the Eagles gathered on the 50-yard line, hopping up and down on the Falcons' odd-looking emblem. Led by Reese, the Atlanta players charged back onto the field, muscling for position on a tiny patch of artificial turf with their increasingly bitter rival. Just as it looked like another brawl might break out, the officials stepped in to break the teams up.
"Sure, it's kind of childish," Falcons coach Jim Mora said Tuesday, breaking into a devilish grin. "But you've got to admit — it's fun."
No doubt. These teams have developed quite a bit of animosity for each other in a few short seasons, which was clear Monday night when they got into it BEFORE their season opener. The jawing started in warmups, punches were thrown and two players were ejected.
Then came the showdown on the Falcons' logo, which is the sort of petulant behavior that might happen between college rivals, but is rarely seen in the buttoned-down NFL.
"A team thinks they're going to come into our stadium and disrespect our emblem? Because that's what it is," Mora said. "Well, I don't think we have to take that. And we didn't."
After Jeremiah Trotter of the Eagles and Kevin Mathis of the Falcons were tossed out, the teams spent the next 3 1/2 hours trying to knock each other out.
Atlanta started quickly with two first-quarter touchdowns. Philly rallied. Finally, with Monday night having faded into Tuesday morning, Donovan McNabb's final pass fluttered harmlessly to the turf after a vicious hit to the midsection from Rod Coleman, preserving Atlanta's 14-10 victory.
It wasn't pretty, but no one could deny the effort. Both teams went at each other with an intensity usually reserved for the playoffs.
"I know I was feeling it," said Mora, who spent the final minutes stalking up and down the sideline, flapping his arms to egg on a Georgia Dome crowd that already had taken the noise to deafening levels. "I thought I was going to throw up."
The seeds of this rivalry can be traced to the playoffs three seasons ago, when the Falcons became the first visiting team to win a postseason game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field but couldn't get by the Eagles at the decrepit ol' Vet, losing 20-6 in the divisional round.
Last season, the teams met again in the playoffs. The stakes were even higher, but the result was the same. Philadelphia stuffed Michael Vick and the Falcons 27-10 in the NFC championship game.
The league recognized the potential of having these teams meet again, scheduling a rematch in the very first week of the season — on Monday night, no less.
"What you've got is two prideful franchises, two powerful teams, that have a lot of respect for each other but don't really like each other a whole lot," Mora said. "They're a fun team to play. You want to play the best and, basically, they've dominated the NFC. If you're a competitor, that's the team you want."
Maybe they'll get another crack at each other in the playoffs. The Falcons surely know that one regular-season victory doesn't make up for two postseason losses.
"We know we're going to see this team again," said Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who spent most of the night guarding Terrell Owens.
After a tumultuous offseason, T.O. managed seven catches for 112 yards but he didn't get to the place he loves most — the end zone. From Atlanta's standpoint, that made the night a success.
"No one wanted to see this," Mora said, mimicking Owens' arm-flapping touchdown celebration. "You don't want him to reach the end zone in your house."
The Falcons clearly got the best of the pregame skirmish. Mathis is a reserve cornerback normally used in passing situations, while Trotter is a Pro Bowl linebacker and the main run stopper in the middle of the Eagles' defense.
With Trotter out, Atlanta rushed for 200 yards.
"We were just trash talking, it escalated and everybody was jumping in, but that was it," Trotter said. "You expect you teammates to come in and defend you. I don't think anyone should have been ejected."
The Eagles don't plan to stay down for long.
"We give them credit," linebacker Keith Adams said. "They came out and played a great game. We look forward to bouncing right back."
Until the next time.