Just what Falcons don’t need: All brutal memories that Houston holds

While confetti rains for New England, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan solemnly exits during his last trip to Houston - the devastating Super Bowl LI loss. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

On Sunday, the 1-3 Falcons travel to Houston to play the Texans in a desperate sort of game for the visitors. I believe Dan Quinn’s bunch has played inside NRG Stadium before. I think the build-up to the game was somewhat more positive. Although, like a trauma victim, I’m blacking out at the moment.

Wait, it’s coming back.

Oh, God.

The horror. The horror.

I see it now, sitting in that press box straining to write something worthwhile on deadline, words that someone might want to scrapbook forever to commemorate the Falcons winning their long-sought first Super Bowl.

I had covered Evander Holyfield winning world titles and Georgia Tech winning a share of a national title and the Braves claiming a World Series. This was going to be bigger. Because this was the Super Bowl, America’s ultimate expression of sport.

The unthinkable was taking shape: Atlanta was going to win the Super Bowl, surely the end of days.

The game was only at halftime, but the Falcons were up 21-3 over New England and looking impervious. A couple of minutes earlier, Robert Alford had stepped in front of a Tom Brady pass and had run 82 yards — Brady making a clumsy, fruitless lunge as he streaked by — for the Falcons' third touchdown.

I remember then starting to write something about how when the Falcons finally did win a Super Bowl, they did it in the most fantastic fashion. They had shattered the decades of frustration by overwhelming the franchise that fancied itself a dynasty. Beating Brady and Belichick on the way to a big parade down Peachtree, what could be finer? Those words still haunt me.

The theme only firmed up in the third quarter when on the Falcons’ second possession of the half they drove 85 yards in only eight plays to score again.

That made the score 28-3. Numbers that mock years later and will until football one day chokes on its own violence.

There were only 23 minutes and 31 seconds left to play at that point. Only the most cataclysmic collapse in the biggest of games could turn this greatest of victories into an entire city’s most devastating defeat. (Contact the Guinness people, for there has just been set a world record for overcooked adjectives in a single sentence).

You’d have to do something against all the football voices screaming inside your head to lose this one. For instance, you’d have to forget about running the ball from the Patriots 23 inside the last four minutes in order to kick a field goal and make it a two-score game. And instead take a sack, suffer a holding call on pass protection and then punt.

And now I remember standing in the men’s room, washing up, when first hearing the announcement that the Patriots had won the toss and would receive in overtime. I think I remember a resigned shrug. Game over. Everyone knew it. New England driving for the win was but a formality.

Get me re-write.

Or better yet, get me Stephen King because only his special touch could do this game story justice.

Why Houston?

No one ever made Napoleon revisit Waterloo for a picnic on the battlefield.

Normally, it is physically impossible to visit your own grave site. Apparently not in this case.

If this is some sort of experimental therapy, 32 months after the fact, it’s not going to work. The pain will never go away. It will be impossible to walk into that building Sunday without being flooded by a sense of doom.

Quinn is too preoccupied now to be haunted. “If it was February and we were playing New England that would be an interesting story,” he said Wednesday. “For me, right now, we’re going back to a building and going to try and get our football right.”

“That’s two years back and honestly we’ve got our hands full looking at Houston and all of the unique stuff they have,” Quinn said, when asked again about the bad memories on a conference call with Houston media.

But why now?

There would be no good occasion for a franchise to return to the scene of its worst moment. But going back to Houston as a 1-3 team, the coach on the ropes, the psyche of the Brotherhood at its most fragile, is the definition of bad timing. The last thing this team needs is a Burfict-like cheap shot to its collective memory.

No one with the Falcons will ever say it, but that evening in Houston, on Feb. 5, 2017, a date that will live in ignominy, is the wound that won’t heal. We’ve all heard it discussed that this generation of Falcons would never be the same after such a loss. I used to think such talk ridiculous, because time and talent surely would ease the trauma. Certainly one loss, even one as monumental as this, couldn’t deflate a franchise for years to come.

But, we have watched the Falcons go 18-19 — a playoff loss included — since that evening. We have wondered whether the best days of the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones connection were being squandered. Might this actually be the longest hangover on record?

There are challenges galore for the Falcons on Sunday. Their offensive line is beat up. They struggle out of conference — since the start of 2017, they are 1-9 vs. the AFC. One-quarter of the way through the season, no one has caught even a glimpse of what their best football may be.

To those potential difficulties now add one more: The occasional paralyzing flashback.

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