Calling (again) the roll of woe: The 5 most excruciating Atlanta losses

To quote Marcus Paige of North Carolina: “When the confetti falls and it’s not for you ...”
To quote Marcus Paige of North Carolina: “When the confetti falls and it’s not for you ...”

We live in Atlanta, which has a metro area population of 5.7 million. We do not live in Twin Peaks (fictional pop. 51,201). But darned if it doesn’t feel as if, sports-wise, we’re trapped in a David Lynch production, which we can all agree isn’t a place you want to be.

In the original run of “Twin Peaks,” the Giant appears to Agent Cooper in a dream – hey, it’s David Lynch – and intones, “It … is … happening … again.” Is there anyone among us who watched Georgia blow a double-figure lead and lose the national-championship game to Alabama in overtime and not think the same?

We are Sisyphus, only with a bigger rock. We are Charlie Brown, forever doomed to try to kick a football that Lucy snatches away at the critical moment. We are Atlanta, and we know the drill. Big game, big lead, Splat City. It has happened here so often that this correspondent, on the day after yet another pratfall, feels compelled to re-rank our Litany of Woes, a list that never gets shorter.

Most any other place, Lonnie Smith dallying at second base (Game 7, 1991 World Series) or Cliff Levingston’s no-chance running lefty hook (Game 6, 1988 Eastern conference semifinal) or Ed Sprague going deep off Jeff Reardon (Game 2, 1992 World Series) or the 18-inning playoff loss in Houston (Game 4, 2005 NLDS) or the infield-fly game (Wild Card 2012) or Georgia wasting an 11-point lead against Alabama (2012 SEC Championship game) would comprise an excruciating bottom half-dozen. Here they’re dishonorable mentions.

We live in Atlanta. We might not have invented the cosmic flop, but we darn sure perfected it. Here, in descending order, are our teams at their absolute worst.

5. The Falcons take a 17-0 lead in January 2013 NFC Championship game and lose. We forget this now, but the same Falcons had blown a 20-point lead against Seattle the week before, only to prevail on Matt Bryant's 48-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining. (And a short kickoff nearly undid that.) Against the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons fell behind – Colin Kaepernick, now known more as a kneeler than a quarterback, led his team back – but had the chance to win at the end. Ahmad Brooks drove Matt Ryan into the turf, shoulder-first. NaVorro Bowman might have interfered with Roddy White, but got away with it. The Falcons lost 28-24. Had they won, Ryan probably wouldn't have been able to play in the Super Bowl. It remains the biggest blown lead in NFC title-game annals.

4. The Falcons lead the Cowboys by 14 points after three quarters and by 10 with 5 1/2 minutes remaining and lose. It was January 1981. The Falcons were the NFC's No. 1 seed. They were gone after their first playoff game. Danny White, twice throwing off his back foot, twice hit Drew Pearson for touchdowns, the go-ahead score coming with 52 seconds remaining. If you ask anyone who was there what was to blame, the first two words are "prevent defense." This was the first epic loss in Atlanta sports history and therefore the template for subsequent indignities. Nobody had any idea how thick and fast those indignities would come.

3. The Leyritz game. The Braves led the 1996 World Series 2-1 and took a 6-0 lead in Game 4. Had they held the lead, they could have clinched their second consecutive championship in the final game played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. But Denny Neagle gave back half that lead, and Mark Wohlers – summoned in the eighth inning, as opposed to his customary ninth – yielded a tying three-run homer to that rat Jim Leyritz on a slider, his third-best pitch. The Braves would lose 8-6 in 10 innings, the winning run coming on Steve Avery's bases-loaded walk of Wade Boggs. This time a year ago, Game 4 stood unchallenged as No. 1 on our city's list of wretched defeats, which tells us all we need to know about the past 11 months.

2. Georgia leads the national-championship game 13-0 and 20-7 and does not win. With a few months to reflect, this might well seem a little less agonizing. (A little, I say.) The Bulldogs did lose to Alabama and Nick Saban, the greatest program and greatest coach ever, and they were undone by Tua Tagovailoa, a freshman who hadn't played much, but is a massive talent. But coming in the wake of the events of Feb. 5, 2017 (first Super Bowl overtime), the night of Jan. 8, 2018 (first overtime in the College Football Playoff Championship game), seems of a piece. You'd never have seen it coming if you just hadn't just seen it happen.

1. 28-3. It's the most (in)famous partial score in the history of American sports. The preening Patriots even etched it into their championship rings. For a moment Monday night, the thought crossed the mind of an addled scribe who'd witnessed both: Was Georgia's loss even worse than the Falcons' collapse in Super Bowl LI? And then, a millisecond later, came clarity: Nothing can be worse than that. (There's a difference between losing a 13-point lead and one almost twice that size.)

That said, we’re Atlanta. With our sports and our teams, we can never say never. Just when you think you’ve absorbed the biggest gut punch any stupid game could ever deliver, up jumps Jim Freakin’ Leyritz or Pretty Boy Brady or a freshman named Tua and it happens again. I really wish I had some words of comfort for y’all. I got nothing.

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