You couldn’t have scripted it better than this.
The Atlanta Falcons, a franchise of constant sorrow for 51 years, rises like the dirty bird from the ashes of disappointment and mounts a miracle season to propel them to Super Bowl 51.
These fantastically-fated Falcons will face off against the Big Daddy of all post-2000 football programs in the big game – the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick New England Patriots, winner of four Lombardi trophies and crushers of worlds.
Last Sunday, the Falcons extinguished the fires of four years ago, when an injured Matt Ryan threw the world’s saddest pass to then-Falcons WR Harry Douglas, only to have it, and the team’s Super Bowl dreams, knocked away by a San Francisco 49er defender. The legacy franchise moved on, the poor old Falcons 10 yards short.
After that, 10 yards turned into 20, then 30, then 4-10, a slight improvement to 6-10, and the ousting of Mike Smith, the only head coach to get the Falcons two consecutive winning seasons. Dark times indeed.
Then, in came Dan Quinn, the fast-and-physical mastermind behind the mighty Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl defense to right the ship that’s never fully been headed due north towards happier shores – always a wave away from calmer waters.
After a honeymoon period for Quinn’s start, one that saw the Falcons post up a shocking 5-0 start, the walls came tumbling down as the team would only win three more games from then to the end of the year, two of those coming against the then-lowly Titans and Jaguars.
There was that shocking win against the undefeated Panthers late in the year, but most wrote that off as a trap game. There was a glimmer there of something greater, though. Something greater was in the works. A plan was coming together in little hints and sparks.
The Falcons’ win at Oakland was the first hint that this team might be on to something.
A week later, Dan Quinn’s Falcons waltzed into the Superdome and beat the New Orleans Saints in primetime. Despite having a banged up defense, the Saints typically win that game against the Birds. On a night that is traditionally not the Falcons, they snapped the spotlight away from the Saints and claimed a commanding victory over their fearsome rivals in their house with the whole nation watching (well, those who weren’t watching the Presidential debate).
Then came the 300 yard game for Julio Jones against the Panthers, and the startling victory the team claimed on Mile High against the Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos. Two weeks, two Super Bowl teams on the “W” list.
The next two weeks weren’t as fun, with losses to Seattle and San Diego sending the team into a must-win game against the Green Bay Packers, longtime Falcon killers with the stalwart Aaron Rodgers at the helm. He always seemed to play the big brother to Ryan’s little bro, leaving him with a loss and a pat on the head to do better next time.
But, the Mattural ended that tight contest with one of the best drives of his career, a quick march down the field led with targets to his second string receiver Mohamed Sanu Sr. capped off by a triumphant TD sling to Sanu in the back of the end zone. That day, the Georgia Dome sounded as if their team had just won the big one.
Little did they know, their team was on the precipice of doing just that.
November was a bit uneven, with a big win on the road against the rival Bucs who had shellacked them in Week One and a nice post-bye victory against the Arizona Cardinals sandwiched with a disconcerting road loss to the stout Philadelphia Eagles and a last-minute home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs – one of the few games where you’ll ever see a team lose a game after scoring a touchdown (a pick on a 2-point attempt returned for points by Atlanta native Eric Berry, which was a great moment in and of itself considering Berry’s bout with cancer).
But, after then, the Falcons refused to lose. Four straight victories against the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints sent the team to the two seed (aided by the Cardinals’ last-second win over the Seahawks) and a chance to play their way to the Super Bowl in the soon-to-be-closed Georgia Dome.
You knew how it went after. The Falcons’ past playoff failures began to dance around in many Falcons fan heads like dastardly sugarplums. Matt Ryan is 1-4 in the playoffs. The 2-point performance against the Giants on the road. The spanking delivered by ol’ A-a-ron and his Pack in 2010. 10 yards away.
But, something different happened this year.
Against the Seahawks, who were fresh off a thrashing of the Detroit Lions behind the heels of RB Thomas Rawls, the Falcons stomped down on the run game with their upstart defense and hung 36 points on one of the leagues’ best and most storied defenses.
A week later in the NFC Championship at home against the Packers, the Falcons finally paid Rodgers back with a 44-21 victory, holding who some regarded as the league’s hottest player to a goose egg at halftime and to 13 points before a garbage time touchdown.
The miracle season was nearly complete – the Falcons partied like it was 1999 – literally. That was the last time the team had claimed the NFC Championship and the first time the team had done so in their home city.
But, in typical Falcons fashion, the dreamlike win set up a clash with the most-feared titan of all – the Patriots.
Now, the team prepares for the biggest game in the team’s 51 years, in the fifty-first iteration of the most hallowed game in American sports, against one of the most feared minds and talents in the league’s existence.
This may seem like a short stick to draw for the Falcons’ Super Bowl berth, but it actually presents a storybook opportunity for this championship-hungry franchise.
After righting many wrongs over the 2016 season, the team finally has a chance to right the greatest wrong of all – losing the biggest game of the year to a legacy franchise, a legacy coach and a legacy quarterback.
In 1999 in Miami, the Denver Broncos, led by iconic head coach Mike Shanahan and iconic quarterback John Elway, made an example of the Dirty Bird Falcons on the national stage. The game was a thrashing, a 60-minute victory party for Elway in his last game under center. He got his second consecutive Super Bowl ring, the Falcons got a bummed out trip home.
Now, 18 years later, the Falcons have a chance to show the world they can hang with the toughest. No coach/quarterback tandem in the history of the league is scarier than Belichick and Brady. Only the New York Giants have ever kept them from claiming the top prize when they’ve reached the big game. Their Canton busts are when, not if. They’re legends of the league, commanders of the craft. Many pundits will scoff at the idea the football team from Atlanta could keep the Bs from claiming their fifth Super Bowl victory.
But, this story isn’t about the Patriots pressing repeat on claiming a second Super Bowl trophy in three years. This story is about redemption for a franchise that has never ended an NFL season with their heads held high.
The Falcons have a historic offense in a year where many felt the offense could be a clunker. Instead, it was a corvette – its highly-critiqued QB and offensive coordinator, Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan, going from rumored rift to world scorchers, the former the favorite to win the MVP and the latter the favorite to win any assistant coaching award on the market.
The defense, long a punch line, turned into a fast, opportunistic unit anchored by top talent (including the NFL’s sack leader, Vic Beasley Jr., who many wrote off after a rough rookie year and defensive rookie of the year candidates Deion Jones and Keanu Neal). No longer can teams march out and play this unit at will.
The head coach, Dan Quinn, and general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, both, for one reason or another, considered to have at least somewhat-simmering seats heading into the season, saw the roster they built turn in to one of the deepest and most talented in the league.
Quinn saw his mantra of playing fast, physical and for each other in the unity of brotherhood become the team’s mantra, not just coachspeak given in locker room talks and post-game pressers.
The Falcons went from irrelevant to unavoidable – a lean, mean, tightly-knit unit that will score on you with ease and make you pay if you sleep on them – and even still if you don’t.
Now, the team has a chance to change the course of its franchise against the same kind of team that vanquished this feat all those years ago.
What irony that the team’s offensive mastermind, Kyle Shanahan, is the son of Mike Shanahan, the head coach at the helm of those darn Broncos who quashed the Dirty Birds in the Super Bowl. Not to mention veteran RBs coach Bobby Turner, the coach behind the devastating running duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, was behind the running back stable on that Broncos team – Terrell Davis, anyone?
Write me a better story than this: the Falcons, who for the next two weeks will be America’s team, get a chance to take down the mightiest of all on the world stage, the exact feat their former Super Bowl brethren couldn’t accomplish in one of the lowest points in Falcons history, to claim their first Super Bowl and cement themselves very much as a team you cannot ignore.
One coach gets to lead the team his father beat to glory, another – Quinn – gets another shot at the team his Seattle defense couldn’t take down in 2015. Two of the game’s new minds get a chance to take on one of the giants.
Out go the Falcant’s, in come the Falcans and wills.
It has been their year so far – no reason to think it won’t continue in Houston on February 5, no matter who stands in their way.
The Patriots deserve the upmost respect, but they don’t deserve to be feared. No one does. Fear keeps one back from achieving their destiny.
These Falcons haven’t been scared of anyone in the 2016 season – even when they’ve taken lumps, they’ve gotten back in the saddle and have tried again. More often than not, they’ve succeeded.
So, after years and years of disappointment, the Falcons finally have a chance to right the wrongs of the past and stand atop the mountain as complete and total victors. This is the best team in the franchise’s history, and they’ve been on a collision course with destiny ever since the first Falcons team took the field.
It’s time for Atlanta to bring home the Lombardi. It’s time for them to shake off the past once and for all and claim what is rightfully theirs, no matter what is in the way.
It’s time for these Falcons to rise up. Why?
Because. It’s time.
Photos from AtlantaFalcons.com