Through 2.75 playoff games – the divisional round, the NFC championship and the first 42 minutes and 53 seconds of the Super Bowl – the Falcons had outscored their opposition 128-44. Those foes included Seattle, Green Bay and New England, each of which had taken a Lombardi Trophy over the previous six seasons. With 17:07 remaining in Super Bowl LI, we Atlantans felt our longstanding skepticism melting into utter awe. Could an Atlanta team really be doing this?
We say again: “This” wasn’t just a team from our star-crossed city taking the big stage; “this” was an Atlanta team absolutely killing it once there. More than a few folks – that’s my hand you see raised – believed the Falcons would win that day; not one of us figured they’d run away with it like Secretariat in the Belmont.
And then … well, you know.
Sunday night brings another big moment – a prime-time game bringing Aaron Rodgers and his Packers to town for the first regular-season NFL game in gleaming Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which might, wonder of wonders, have its finicky petal roof open for the occasion. Is that not a harmonic convergence?
We answer that question with another: Is there ever a harmonic convergence for Atlanta, hub of the cosmic sports flop?
I’ll not trot out the litany of indignities. You know it by heart. You also know that such games – before the bright lights of national TV, facing a big-name opponent – have often brought out the worst in our teams, the Falcons especially. It was in 2003, with Michael Vick hurt and the team 1-6, that Arthur Blank wrote a letter of apology to the president of ABC for his team’s 36-0 loss to the Rams on “Monday Night Football.”
It was in 1984 that a young(ish) AJC reporter was tasked with monitoring the ABC feed of a Monday night game so as to enlighten this market, which had fallen afoul of the NFL’s sellout-or-blackout rule. This market didn’t miss much. The Falcons lost 24-10 to the Rams to fall to 3-5. With the score 24-3, a camera caught Freddie Falcon, the mascot, with his headpiece off. An unmasked Freddie waved his hand toward the field, indicating disgust.
Said Frank Gifford: “Apparently Freddie doesn’t like short passes, either.”
(The Falcons spent the night throwing many of those to no effect. The three famous men calling the game were not amused.)
O.J. Simpson: “Ooh, there's another short pass. Guess they're going to do it until they get it right.”
Gifford: 'It wasn't a sellout, but there were more than 50,000 here tonight. And we're just about here alone now. That really changes the acoustics.”
Simpson: “ . . . And there's another short pass.”
Gifford: “Referee Jerry Markbreit is calling for the clock to be adjusted by seven seconds.'
Simpson: “Seven seconds? Which way?”
Don Meredith: “I know which way I hope.”
The neat thing about the Falcons last season was how they made us forget they were a doomed-to-fail Atlanta entity. They beat Denver, the reigning NFL champ, in Mile High. They twice destroyed Carolina, the reigning NFC champ. They nearly won in Seattle and crushed the Seahawks here in January. They edged Rodgers and the Pack in October and routed them with a Super berth at stake. And then it was 28-3 and the correspondent who’d listened to the Giffer and O.J. and Dandy Don 33 years ago was sitting in NRG Stadium writing these giddy words: “For once, an Atlanta team met its moment and played better than we dared to dream.”
For obvious reasons, that line didn’t see print. But the memory of a great moment gone punch-in-the-gut wrong hasn’t faded. To wit: In their first game since Feb. 5, the Falcons led an ordinary opponent by 10 inside the final eight minutes, and if the Bears don’t drop a pass we’re screaming, “It’s happening again!”
It wasn’t just that the Falcons lost a Super Bowl. (They’d done that before, you’ll recall.) It was that they lost a Super Bowl after fooling us into thinking they couldn’t lose. It was that, at the last possible moment, they reverted to feckless Falcons. Killer stat: This team made one turnover in three playoff games against the highest level of competition, and that one – Dont’a Hightower’s sack/strip after Devonta Freeman’s whiff – cost them a championship.
It could be that these Falcons are good enough – on paper, they look terrific – to banish all fear and leave no doubt. It could be that they beat Mr. Discount Double-Check for a third time in 10 ½ months. It could be that the petal roof opens without a glitch. But we’re Atlantans, and we learned again in February what we’ve known all our lives: There’s no such thing as an Atlanta sure thing.