Even if we concede it’s just a game, it’s nonetheless a mighty big game. Big for the Falcons, in business since 1966 and never a champion, and big for our city, which has seen more major sports teams – both were hockey clubs – exit for Canada than stage ultimate-victory parades. And the Falcons winning would, we also concede, be an almost perfect story.
They came within 10 yards of the Super Bowl four Januarys ago. It would have marked the culmination of the best five years in franchise annals, but NaVorro Bowman got away with pass interference and that was that. The Falcons then fell apart, which was inconvenient for those peddling PSLs for the spaceship stadium being built next door to the hardly decrepit Georgia Dome. But they hired a new coach and let him work, and here they are — rebuilt, reborn and ready to relocate.
By beating Green Bay on Sunday, the Falcons can send the doomed Dome out in style. “Monumental,” was how center Alex Mack referred to this occasion, and it does feels that way. Which is why we Atlantans are sweating bullets.
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but our teams are terrible at monumental. That numbing stat yet again: Atlanta is 1-for-167 at winning a title in a major sport. Cleveland just came within a run of doubling our total-for-forever in the span of five months. (I say again: Cleveland!)
I believe the Falcons will beat the Packers. I believe they’re the better team. But then I saw this nugget, via NFL Research: The Falcons are only the third team to close a stadium with a conference title game. The first two were San Francisco, exiting Kezar for Candlestick Park in 1971, and Philadelphia, leaving Veterans for Lincoln Financial Field in 2003. Both lost.
Then I recall the paragraph typed by these fingers after the Braves beat the Yankees in Game 2 of the 1996 World Series to take a 2-0 lead: “The final game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium will be played this week. A champagne reception could follow.” The Braves had barged into the Bronx and outscored their hosts 16-1. They came home and lost Game 3, blew a 6-0 lead in Game 4 and were shut out in Game 5. The final nine runs scored at AFCS were by the visiting team.
I believe the Falcons are better than the Packers, but the 1996 Braves were better than the ’96 Yankees and the 2012 Falcons were better than those 49ers, and we saw what happened. Folks who’ve been here longer than I have – I arrived in 1984 – point to the playoff game against Dallas on Jan. 4, 1981, and the blown 14-point lead as Atlanta’s first crushing defeat as a pro sports city. (They also swear Too Tall Jones was offside.) We’ve seen a lot, most of it bad.
The Falcons closing the Dome on an all-time high – their only conference title to date was taken in Minneapolis under the roof of the cursed Metrodome, site of the worst-to-first Braves’ ultimate undoing – would be almost perfect, which is why the Atlantan in me worries that it’s too perfect. But here I try to stop the fretting and deal in reality.
The Falcons are favored. They’re playing at home. They’ve already beaten the Packers. They have a better and healthier defense. They have better and healthier receivers. They have better running backs. Their quarterback is the one man capable of playing the raging Aaron Rodgers to a draw. (Not that Matt Ryan will be defending Rodgers’ passes, which, as the comedic Matty Ice said this week, “is a good thing for our team.”) There’s also this:
Only five Falcons on this active roster were part of the lost 17-point lead against San Fran four years ago. The majority of these guys haven’t been around long enough to have felt the vagaries of what we media wits call “The Bird” – meaning the team logo, but also the team’s crazy-quilt history. These guys aren’t playing to close a building or to satisfy a thirsting city or to change the course of a forlorn franchise. As Dan Quinn says of his “Brotherhood,” these guys play for each other.
Asked about the weight on Ryan, Mack said: “The focus for us is trying to keep the same practice every day. You don’t want to be different this week than you have been throughout the regular season.” That’s the only way to do it. That bit about big games being won by The Team That Wants It More is garbage. Both teams will try their hardest. The team that plays better will win. The Falcons have the better team.
That’s the pragmatic part of me talking. Even after 32 years in the A-T-L, that’s the side I’m heeding today. To say our teams haven’t fared well in monumental games is a monumental understatement, but those teams were not this team. As the nerves jangle over these next few hours, try repeating that. If that fails, there’s Xanax.