When I moved to Atlanta in 2007, the Falcons were awful. That year, electric dual-threat QB Michael Vick had been tamed by NFL defenses and was jailed for running a dog-fighting ring; and Bobby Petrino was hired to right the ship after Jim Mora Jr. was fired after 3 years at the helm, but Petrino bolted for the University of Arkansas thirteen games into the NFL season, leaving behind locker room discord and a patchwork offense that helped Atlanta slip to a 4-12 record and the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 draft. Having lived in the Bay Area for most of my life at that point and having heard of the 49ers struggle year after year, I was used to a certain level of mediocrity from my local NFL team, but the straits the Falcons were in before the 2008 offseason were dire. The Falcons shifted from an offensive-minded coach in Petrino to a defensive guru in hiring Mike Smith, the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the roster wasn’t looking fantastic. Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff (formerly of the Patriots) made the most of their 11 draft picks, selecting Boston College QB Matt Ryan to be the new face of the franchise in the wake of Michael Vick’s imprisonment as well as a number of defensive players to shore up a weak front seven.
Atlanta didn’t yet feel like home to me, but I kept tabs on the Falcons’ success that first season under Smith and Ryan. I was intrigued - the duo was the new hotness in town and they kept winning. In 2008, they led Atlanta to an 11-5 record and the #5 seed in the NFC playoffs. While the Falcons fell to the Arizona Cardinals (who would later represent the NFC in the Super Bowl) in the wild-card round, the buzz among my friends seemed to be that the team was trending upward, and everyone was excited about what the future could hold. Even though 2009 was a step backward (posting only a 9-7 record and missing the postseason), the season was still a success - the Falcons now had their first consecutive winning seasons in franchise history, and the team looked ready to catch on fire and take the NFL by storm.
No one saw 2010 coming. The Falcons rocketed to the #1 seed and a first round bye in the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. I credit 2010 with developing my Falcons fanhood, shameful as it may be that I started out as a bit of a bandwagoner. I loved watching Matt Ryan spread opposing defenses out and Michael Turner steamroll opposing defensive linemen for 4+ yards every carry. The divisional round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers cut deeply, but I was hooked on the Falcons and just couldn’t get enough. I started to fall in love with the team and this city.
2011 was a mixed bag - looking back, we lost a few games that we should have won, but still put together a solid season, posting a 10-6 record and squeaking into the playoffs again as a #5 seed. We were promptly slaughtered 24-2 in the wild-card round by QB Eli Manning and the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Getting blown out that badly and only having a safety to show for our efforts in the Meadowlands was embarrassing, but the team was still trending upward and was poised to improve.
We bolted out of the gate again in 2012, rattling off eight straight wins to start the season - a franchise record. We clinched the #1 seed again and looked set to run the table through the playoffs and win our first Super Bowl.
But there was trouble on the horizon: almost every game we played turned into a shootout. Our offense had no trouble putting points on the board, but neither did other offenses when they were faced with our struggling defense. Our secondary was getting sliced and diced by opposing quarterbacks who had all the time in the world to throw the ball because we couldn’t put any pressure on them.
We jumped out to a 20-point lead over Seattle early on in our divisional round matchup, but Russell Wilson and Seattle’s offense sprang back to life in the fourth quarter and made short work of our advantage. It took a 49-yard field goal from K Matt Bryant and an end-zone interception by WR Julio Jones on a Seattle Hail Mary pass to seal the win. We were through to the NFC Championship for the first time since 2004, but lucky to be there.
We raced out to a 17-point lead over the San Francisco 49ers by the middle of the second quarter. We were feeling good - the offense was chugging along, the defense was holding a dynamic 49ers offense, and it looked like we would run away with the victory. But the 49ers put up two touchdowns going into the halftime break and even though we had answered with another of our own, the shoe that had waited so long to fall finally came crashing down through the ceiling of the Georgia Dome. The 49ers would go on to score 14 more unanswered points and suppress the Falcons offense for the entire second half. At the end of the half, Matt Ryan and the Falcons fought their way down to the 49ers’ 10-yard line, but couldn’t get a first down in their first three plays. The game came down to one final fourth down stand (start at 09:05).
I couldn’t believe it. We had come so far and achieved so much, but still failed to take that final step. We choked away another important game, and I was disheartened.
It didn’t help that the next two seasons turned out awful. The Falcons fell to 4-12 in 2013 and cobbled together a measly two more wins for a 6-10 record in 2014, ending that season in the playoff hunt but blown out 34-3 by the Carolina Panthers in a de-facto NFC South title game the last week of the season. The following Tuesday, Falcons head coach Mike Smith was fired with a year left on his contract. The team had slumped, the offense was stale, and Smith’s tactics on both sides of the ball were too conservative. Team owner Arthur Blank noted that “I would tell you that probably including my 23 years at Home Depot, this was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make” (via ESPN), but a change needed to be made, lest the Falcons wallow at the bottom of the NFC for years to come.
I’ll be honest: I stopped watching the NFL after Smith was fired. To me, college football was just way more interesting, and with my college admissions process in full swing, the draw of CFB was unrelenting. I refused to put up with heartbreak after heartbreak from the Falcons and watch a team that came five yards from playing in the Super Bowl continue to get worse and worse. Even with a new head coach and some key coaching changes, the Falcons hadn’t changed enough to draw me back into the fold.
I lasted one offseason.
As we all remember, the Falcons started 2015 off red-hot, rattling off five straight wins to start the season. Emotions were running high in Atlanta; the team was doing well, and the city was starting to fall in love with its team again. But soon enough the other shoe fell, a feeling all Atlanta sports fans know too well, and the Falcons only won three other games down the stretch and missed the postseason.
I watched the 2015 season with a sense of deja vu. I felt shades of 2012 all over again - how every game had to be a shootout, how our defense was “bend, but don’t break” but continued to break week after week, and how stifling and cynical being an Atlanta sports fan could be.
In August, NFL Network analysts pegged the 2016 Falcons for a 5-11 finish. They claimed QB Matt Ryan was the fourth-best quarterback in his own division, ranking him behind even second-year Buccanneers quarterback Jameis Winston. ESPN gave the Falcons a 1.2% of making Super Bowl 51, and NFL.com didn’t even mention Atlanta in its NFC South predictions, going instead for a Carolina clean sweep. Heck, only one analyst even put the Falcons in the playoffs, with writer Chris Wesseling predicting, “Matt Ryan’s offense will be one of the surprises of the 2016 season, flirting with 30 points per game”. More people bet on the Browns than the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Barely anyone gave this team a shot. So what did they do?
They came out fighting.
Once again, the Falcons started strong out of the gate, winning four of their first five games and dominating some of the NFL’s best teams - among them: a resurgent Oakland helmed by QB Derek Carr, the Super Bowl runner-up Carolina Panthes and their QB Cam Newton, and the new-look Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos led by vaunted ILB Von Miller. The Falcons were heating up, and Matt Ryan was slinging the ball all over the field without remorse, punishing opposing defenses for 30+ points per game. I began to believe in the team again; I thought we had a solid chance to make a name for ourselves during the season and build our way back up to success.
But soon enough, my hopes came crashing back to harsh reality: the Falcons dropped three of their next five and fell to 6-4, in danger of losing their division lead and missing a shot at the playoffs once more. The narrative painted shades of 2012 yet again: the offense was on fire and Matt Ryan was quickly becoming an MVP candidate, but could the defense hold enough to win Atlanta games? Going into a Week 11 bye with last-minute losses to the Seahawks and Chargers, as well as a disappointing outing in Philadelphia, the future seemed bleak. Would the Falcons make the playoffs, and even if they did, what chance would they stand against a streaking Dallas Cowboys team led by rookie QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliot, a tough Seattle Seahawks team captained by Super Bowl-winning QB Russell Wilson, and a battle-worn but determined Green Bay Packers team willed to victories on the right arm of QB Aaron Rodgers? The cream of the NFC would tear apart the Falcons’ defense and even with his prolific stats, Matt Ryan wouldn’t be able to do anything about it as he rode the pine on the sideline.
No one expected Atlanta to come out of their bye week and start to crush teams.
First up were the Arizona Cardinals, whom the Falcons quickly dispatched 38-19. After dropping another last-second heartbreaker to Kansas City, Atlanta wreaked havoc on the rest of its opponents, putting up an average of 38.5 points per game and only allowing 18.75 points per game versus the Rams, 49ers, Panthers, and Saints. Like the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants, the Falcons turned on the jets at the perfect time, riding that wave right into a 11-5 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs and capping the Georgia Dome’s 25th and final regular season with a win over archrival New Orleans.
QB Matt Ryan was Atlanta’s resident gunslinger, leading the NFL’s top-ranked scoring offense into battle by posting incredible numbers and making almost zero mistakes on his way to the top of 2016 MVP projections.
WR Julio Jones fought off a nagging turf toe injury to light up opposing secondaries, coming in second place for the NFL receiving title but putting up only 39 fewer yards in 27 fewer targets than leader T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts.
But Jones wasn’t the only one wreaking havoc; WR Taylor Gabriel, WR Mohamed Sanu, TE Austin Hooper, TE Levine Toilolo, and a bevy of other receivers joined in on the fun, allowing Jones to be used as a decoy and Ryan to spread the ball around with great success, to the chagrin of many opposing defensive coordinators.
A running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman lulled opposing defenses into focusing on stopping the run, unleashing a hellfire of play-action passing from Ryan to his litany of receivers.
But we can’t forget about the guys up front: the Falcons started the same five offensive linemen in every game this season, keeping Matt Ryan’s pocket clean and giving him more than enough time to find open targets down field for big plays.
The Falcons defense stifled opposing offenses after the bye week. OLB Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks, wrestling quarterbacks to the ground 15.5 times over the course of the year.
During this on-field Falcons renaissance, the city fell in love with its team again. Known mostly for its fair-weather fans and large away contingents coloring its arenas’ seats, Atlanta citizens began to pack the Georgia Dome en masse in red and black. Some might say the city’s fair-weather fans had come back to the fold when the Falcons started winning in dominant fashion again, but I liked to think that the birds had come to roost (and root) once more. We were united as a city once again, brought together by the brotherhood of the Falcons (and indeed that’s what the team began to call their crusade - #InBrotherhood).
But all of this regular season success meant nothing if Atlanta couldn’t find postseason glory. Critics were quick to remind fans that Ryan, prolific as he might have been in 2016, was only 1-4 in the postseason in his career, including that heart-wrenching 2012 NFC Championship loss. As the wild card picture cleared up, we realized that in order to make it to our second Super Bowl in franchise history we’d have to dispatch the top-flight of the NFC.
In the divisional round, Seattle made a statement by scoring on its first drive of the game, showing that while injuries had decimated the power it had once displayed in the playoffs, it was still a formidable opponent. Seattle led 10-7 early into the second quarter and had forced Atlanta to punt when SEA WR Devin Hester’s sensational 80-yd punt return that sliced through the middle of the Falcons defense was called back because of a penalty. This, plus the subsequent safety, turned the tide of the game: the Seahawks continued to make mistakes, and Atlanta continued to dominate in the air.
Final Score: Atlanta 36, Seattle 20.
But now came the true challenge: championship Sunday - our white whale, the date we had failed to move past even with some of our best teams. This would be the Falcons’ fourth-ever NFC Championship game, going 1-2 in the previous 3 with a 2004 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and the aforementioned heartbreaker in 2012 against the San Francisco 49ers. All eyes centered on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers; they were going to “run the table”, they were a team of destiny, and they were hot enough to beat any team in the league. The Falcons were only a speed-bump on Aaron Rodgers’ way to another Super Bowl appearance and he couldn’t be stopped.
The Packers underestimated Atlanta - severely.
Falcons fans packed the Dome, surrounding the Packers in a sea of black and red and creating a loud and noisy environment to disrupt Green Bay’s offense. On the field, the Falcons got two early key stops: a missed field goal by K Mason Crosby and a fumble by FB Aaron Ripkowski, which combined left 10 points on the field for Green Bay. Atlanta’s front seven rattled Rodgers throughout the game, forcing him to throw away a number of passes and forcing him to roll out of the pocket to throw on the run. Matt Ryan was in MVP form, “(looking) like the best quarterback in football operating a successful offense at the highest possible level. He was part surgeon, part point guard, finding open receivers all over the field and putting his skill-position guys in the best possible position to pick up chunks of yardage” (via CBS Sports).
The game was over at halftime; the Falcons led 24-0 into the break and the team never let up the pressure, crushing Green Bay by a final score of 44-21. Rodgers’ table had been flipped, there would be no Cinderella story written in Green Bay, and the Falcons, for the second time ever in franchise history, would be going to the Super Bowl.
I watched championship Sunday anxiously. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, like it always had. I kept telling myself and my friends, “We need more points. No lead is safe with Aaron Rodgers on the field.” I couldn’t believe that the game was over and Atlanta was going to win until Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy pulled Rodgers with 2:00 left in the game and allowed backup QB Brett Hundley to get some reps in garbage time.
The only things that fell yesterday afternoon were red and black confetti from the rafters of the Georgia Dome and the tears of millions of devoted Falcons fans across the country (myself included) who watched their team advance to the big game for the first time in almost 20 years. I couldn’t move from my couch until after the trophy ceremony ended. I couldn’t believe what I had just watched. Heck, I can barely believe it now as I write this the following afternoon. A few years ago, putting Atlanta in the Super Bowl would have been the punchline to a bad joke; most fans would have laughed at you if you had told them that the Falcons would be in Super Bowl under a second-year head coach in Dan Quinn. No one believed that this team could do it, but alas, here we are.
This Super Bowl Sunday will mark my 10th year living in Atlanta. I’ve watched this team rise from the ashes of 2007 and reconstruct itself into a point-scoring behemoth that refuses to yield. During the last decade, I’ve fallen in love with this team and this city; for all its faults, for its quirks, for all so-called “experts” might call it a terrible sports town and for all its “horrible” districts, Atlanta has been my home, and it is but one step from securing its second-ever world championship.
It will be a battle in Houston, pitting one of the league’s best defenses (that allows the fewest number of points per game) and one of the all-time great quarterbacks versus the league’s best offense and a younger, poised, and electric offense for a shot at glory. For one team, winning would mark their leader’s fifth Super Bowl victory, cementing him in the annals of football history, but for the other, a Super Bowl victory would be a statement - not only to the NFL, but also to the world: Atlanta is back, and we’re here to stay.
Maybe you think that stalwart New England is poised to steamroll an upstart Atlanta team. Maybe you just don’t find any hype in watching a vaunted Patriots team battle against the Falcons. Maybe you like the idea of a city continuing its championship drought and its fans sobbing away their sorrows after another missed opportunity. Maybe you think Atlanta is a terrible sports town that should be stripped of its teams (you’re wrong, Mike Wilbon, and here’s why). Maybe you just don’t like Atlanta.
We don’t care. We’ve heard it all for years. We’ve seen it all. We’re battle-tested. We’re ready. The team that everyone (except our buddy Chris) counted out is going to Houston.
See you February 5th, New England. Falcons Nation will be ready.