That limited optimism was enough to cause kicker Morten Andersen to grouse a couple of days after a loss to the Tennessee Oilers in the preseason opener. He didn't like a headline in the Journal-Constitution that referred to the game as "ugly.''
"What's up with that?'' he said. "We lost, but it wasn't ugly. Preseason games are like that, man. It seems like people have a preconceived notion of this franchise, and they have to get words like 'ugly, ' or 'disaster, ' or 'horrible' in there all the time. It's a new year. How about a clean slate?''
After the city of Atlanta threw a parade for the Falcons on Monday, it was obvious they had taken a clean slate and written a new script: This team is no longer a bunch of has-beens and wannabes. They are defending NFC champions, and with just two starters among a group of 22 players whose contracts expire, they will go into next season with a goal higher than just making the playoffs. They'll want to return to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons made it to that game for the first time in franchise history. They lost 34-19 to the Denver Broncos, but it was easily the best season of pro football since the Falcons landed in Atlanta in 1966.
Dan Reeves joined Bud Grant, Marv Levy and Don Shula as the only coaches to lose four Super Bowls as a head coach, but along the way he gained a new appreciation for life after undergoing quadruple heart-bypass surgery Dec. 14.
He also developed a warm spot in his heart for a team that won a franchise-record 11 games in a row and went 16-3 before the Super Bowl.
"They all hurt. That's the difficulty of playing in the Super Bowl, '' said Reeves, who lost three Super Bowls in the 1980s while head coach of the Broncos. "Only one team in the whole league ends up happy when the season is over.
"We worked hard. They had a real work ethic, great character, never quit . . . they're extremely close. It's as good a group as I've ever been around. It may not be the most talented football team, but they sure play as well as they can play.''
Reeves and his staff, which stayed intact from last season to this, didn't overhaul the team last training camp, as wide receiver Tony Martin, rookie right tackle Ephraim Salaam, defensive tackle Shane Dronett and free safety Eugene Robinson were the only new starters.
But a team that won six of its last eight in 1997, after starting 1-7, picked up from there this season.
The Falcons had never won at Carolina, but survived a last-minute Hail Mary pass that slipped off the fingertips of Panthers receiver Raghib Ismail to win 19-14 in Charlotte.
"In a hostile environment, seeing how the guys responded, we knew we had a good team then, '' reserve cornerback Randy Fuller said. "To say we thought we would get all the way to the Super Bowl wouldn't be right, but you could see a total team effort. Some other teams have individuals that have to . . . be in the limelight, but this team . . . worked together.''
Atlanta fell to 2-1 with a 31-20 loss at San Francisco Sept. 27, but after outscoring the 49ers 13-0 in the second half, Reeves said he learned his team would not give up.
A 51-23 victory against Carolina, and a 34-20 triumph on the road against the Giants on ESPN served notice to the rest of the NFL that the Falcons were not a fluke.
Jamal Anderson rushed for more than 100 yards in each of those games on his way to franchise records of 1,846 rushing yards and 12 100-yard games and an NFL-record 410 carries.
Combined with quarterback Chris Chandler, who finished No. 4 in the NFL with a 100.9 passer rating, Atlanta's offense grew more dangerous weekly. Chandler was hurt in the next game, though, and when he missed an Oct. 25 road game against the Jets, the Falcons got thrashed 28-3. It was the last time they would lose for more than three months.
When the Falcons went to New England and laid waste to the Patriots 41-10 on Nov. 8, Anderson and tight end O.J. Santiago breathed life into the "Dirty Bird'' dance.
Santiago, a second-year tight end, had heard a fan calling him and his teammates "the dirty birds, " and he spread the word in the locker room. Anderson, of course, ran with it. He incorporated parts of a salute he and his teammates at the University of Utah used to do to come up with a gig that the city has come to love.
Santiago, though, was the first to perform it in a game. He scored two touchdowns against the Patriots, and each time he started hopping up and down on alternate feet while flapping imaginary wings and squawking at the crowd.
On defense, coverage got much better later in the year, even though cornerback Ronnie Bradford missed six starts, and was replaced by second-year man Michael Booker.
Safety Eugene Robinson, who started the season poorly after signing as a free agent from Green Bay, improved in October.
By the end of the season, he was one of six Pro Bowl choices on the team, joining Anderson, Chandler, cornerback Ray Buchanan, middle linebacker Jessie Tuggle and left tackle Bob Whitfield.
Against the 49ers on Nov. 15, Buchanan had one of his seven interceptions and returned the ball to the 1 to set up an Anderson touchdown. Tuggle also recovered a Steve Young fumble for a touchdown, and a team that led the NFL with a plus-14 turnover ratio was on a roll, leading 24-6 as the Georgia Dome went nuts.
The 49ers came back with two quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter, however, and with first place in the NFC West on the line, the Falcons were tested. They could have run out the clock, but Chandler hit Mathis for a 78-yard touchdown with 2:51 left.
Atlanta was in first place in the division the rest of the way.
"I think people still questioned us until we beat them at home, '' Reeves said. "By winning the New England game, and beating the 49ers, that gave us a tremendous amount of confidence.''
After a 27-17 victory at New Orleans on Dec.13, however, Reeves shook everyone. After explaining to team internist Charlie Harrison that he had experienced many of the same symptoms that signaled heart problems almost a decade earlier when he was coach of the Broncos, he underwent tests the next day.
He had quadruple bypass surgery that afternoon. Harrison said if Reeves had waited much longer, the result could have been "catastrophic.''
The next Sunday, without their coach, the Falcons went to Detroit, where they had lost five in a row. But with defensive coordinator Rich Brooks serving as interim head coach, the Falcons won 24-17, sewing up the NFC West for just the second time. The first came in 1980.
In the final regular-season game, the Falcons, with nothing to gain for the playoffs, followed Reeves' orders, playing like a team with nothing to lose, and whipped the Dolphins 38-16.
After a bye week, the Falcons played host to San Francisco in their first home playoff game in 18 years, and Reeves returned to the sideline. It looked at one time like it might be a blowout as Anderson ran for two touchdowns to stake the Falcons to a 14-0 lead.
But Atlanta got conservative in the second half, and had to intercept three Young passes to seal it. Robinson's 77-yard return set up Andersen's game-winning field goal, and strong safety William White finished the game with his second interception of the day.
That victory sent the Falcons to Minnesota, where the Vikings were 16-1 and had blown away teams by an average of 26 points.
Surrounded by noise, the Falcons fell behind 20-7 just before halftime. But Chuck Smith forced a Randall Cunningham fumble, and Chandler hit Mathis for a 14-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left in the half.
Still, the Vikings led 27-20 with a couple of minutes left in regulation when Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson lined up for a 38-yarder that would all but put the game out of reach. Anderson had not missed a field goal all season. But he sent this one wide left.
Chandler drove the Falcons downfield, hitting Mathis for the tying score from 16 yards out with 49 seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, the teams traded possessions until Chandler led the Falcons on a 10-play, 70-yard drive. This time, Morten Andersen, kicking from 38 yards at the same goal where Anderson missed, sent the ball down the middle.
Two weeks later the dream ended in Miami at the Super Bowl. Atlanta scored a field goal on its opening drive, but Denver countered with a touchdown and never looked back on the way to a 34-19 victory.
The Falcons had four turnovers, gave up 457 yards of offense and a season-high 34 points, and got just six points out of six possessions inside the Broncos' 30-yard line.
"It was just like the magic stopped somewhere out there, " Buchanan said. "It was gone."
All season, intensity had been the team's strength. The 49ers' Young said it after his team's two losses to the Falcons. "They compete on every play, '' he said. "They just don't take any plays off.''
Reeves is proud of his team.
"What we accomplished was a lot, and I don't think this football team is happy to just be here, '' Reeves said.
Next year, Super Bowl XXXIV is in the Georgia Dome.
"As long as I've been here, " said Tuggle, a 12-year Falcon, "we reach the playoffs one year, and the next year was a disaster. I'm hoping those years are behind us. We can learn from this; we know what it takes to get here.''