Arthur Blank spent some time picking out his uniform Saturday night. These wardrobe decisions are important when you are an emotionally invested sports owner in one of the globe’s most tormented sports cities and you’re seeking any possible advantage, whether actual or imagined.
He went with the red sports coat. The man never sweated this much deciding where to put the next 100 Home Depots.
“My wife and I debated,” Blank said, between hugs as he worked his way through the Falcons’ locker room Sunday. “I wore it in a playoff game we won. I said, ‘There’s going to be a celebration.’ We wouldn’t use the word win. It was, ‘Well, if we have a positive outcome.’ Didn’t want to jinx it.”
It’s safe to uncross the fingers now.
The Falcons are going to the Super Bowl. It’s only the second time this has happened and the last one seems relatively prehistoric: the 1998 season.
We are living in unique times in professional sports. The Cubs won a championship. The city of Cleveland won a championship. The Atlanta Falcons just made the most decorated and historic franchise in NFL history scream, “Uncle.”
They led 7-0 after the first possession, 24-0 at halftime, 31-0 in the third quarter and …
Was this really happening?
“I’m still numb,” said Jonathan Babineaux, the team’s most tenured player, who was the first player hugged by Blank on the sideline with …
Two minutes left?
Yes. This was a game between two turbo-loaded offenses and otherworldly quarterbacks that many believed would come down to the final possession. Instead, it was over before the third quarter ended.
Former president Jimmy Carter, 92 years old, was shown on the video board, yelling, “Rise Up!”
That happened. So did this: The Falcons won 44-21. I think. The final punch count seemed like an afterthought.
Blank had left his luxury box at the Georgia Dome and gone down to the sideline with about five minutes left. He stood quietly at the 20-yard-line, not wanting to celebrate too soon. This is Atlanta. These are the Falcons. But then …
“They took out Aaron Rodgers. I looked over and they put in No. 7,” Blanks said. “So I realized they were just going to run the clock out and I thought, ‘OK, finally.’”
In his 15th season of ownership, after the highs of a 2002 playoff win in Green Bay with Michael Vick and a couple of NFC title appearances, after the extreme lows of Vick’s exit and Bobby Petrino’s tenure and the difficult decision to fire coach Mike Smith … Finally.
Blank celebrated like never before. His dance moves, which went viral on the internet after last week’s win over Seattle, were on display on stage during a trophy celebration. Truth is, he never imagined he would get here so quickly after the hiring of coach Dan Quinn last year.
When Atlanta won the rights to host the 2019 Super Bowl in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Blank sent a text message to Quinn.
“I told him, ‘We want to play in the Super Bowl in 2019.’ He texted me back saying, ‘I plan on getting there sooner.’ So maybe I didn’t expect this but Dan did.”
Remember when the Falcons were 0-1 and facing a murderous schedule and nobody thought they would make the playoffs? Remember when nobody thought Matt Ryan could win in the postseason?
Ryan’s final numbers: 27 for 38 (with at least three drops) for 392 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. His counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, was just OK. In fact, he was so frustrated that he ripped off the Falcons’ Robert Alford’s helmet in the fourth quarter.
Guess he didn’t see this coming, either.
The Green Bay offense’s four possessions produced a missed field, a fumble (in the red zone), a punt and a ah-screw-it-I-think-I’ll-just-chuck-this-up-for-grabs interception by Rodgers. Credit the Falcons’ dizzying offense for so thoroughly dismantling the Green Bay defense (325 yards, three touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions) that Rodgers must’ve felt some pressure to keep up. Credit to the Falcons’ improving defense, which gave up some plays but pressured and hit Rodgers often (rookie Brian Poole twice leveled Rodgers on blitzes as he was throwing).
This is where the Falcons are now: Find the flaw. They rolled over Seattle 36-20. They won their final four games of the regular season and actually would be on an eight-game win streak since the bye week if not for a “pick-2” in a 29-28 loss to Kansas City.
In this postseason, they’ve basically torn apart two of the NFL’s premier teams that had won two of the last six Super Bowls.
The Packers were beat up going into this game. But this wasn’t about one team having a few more injuries or being a little more tired. The Falcons affirmed their superiority early and often. Julio Jones missed four plays on the opening possession because of toe and foot injuries. But he had Green Bay’s defense so paranoid and flummoxed that he was able to draw two defenders and clear out an area on the right side for fullback Patrick DiMarco for a 31-yard pass play to the Packers’ 5. Three plays later, Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a 2-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The dismembering was on.
Ryan had a 14-yard scramble for a touchdown. That was probably the one thing Green Bay wasn’t worried about going into the week. Maybe the quarterback picked up some dance moves from the owner.
Soon, it turned into the Julio Jones Show. With seven seconds left in the first half from the Green Bay 5, he turned around in the end zone for a short TD pass from Ryan, pointing back to his quarterback while seated on the turf, as if to say, “You’re the MVP.”
Then came Jones’ I’m-an-alien-life-form moments in the third quarter. He took a short pass from Ryan at the Falcons’ 35, boat-raced the defense, broke a tackle at the Packers’ 40, stiff-armed Damarious Randall at the 25 and galloped to the end zone like the thoroughbred he is.
Later in the quarter, Jones leaped for a 23-yard reception near midfield between three defenders, leading to another touchdown. Despite the bad foot, he finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores.
Blank took it all in. Confetti fell on him in the Georgia Dome, which had its finest moment in its final game. Blank took note of the symbolism. But more important to him than where this franchise is today is where he believes it’s going. The Falcons were coming off 4-12 and 6-10 seasons before Quinn’s hiring in 2015.
“My goal was not only to win a championship, get to the Super Bowl, win a Super Bowl, but to put us in a position as an organization to be a sustainably important team for a long time,” he said. “I think we’re well positioned now to do that.”
And they still have one game left.