Want a parade, Atlanta? Falcons are your best hope

Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman are three big reasons the Falcons are a No. 2 seed in the NFC going going into the NFL playoffs, that begin this weekend. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman are three big reasons the Falcons are a No. 2 seed in the NFC going going into the NFL playoffs, that begin this weekend. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Notwithstanding forecasts of a frozen hell and a winter blast not seen in the free world since the “Great Blizzard of 1888” disabled railway, telegraph lines and I’m assuming Twitter in the Northeast, the Atlanta streets hunger for something to fall from the sky: confetti.

Championship parades are not commonplace here. They run a close second to Sasquatch sightings.

True story (for young ’uns and recent transplants): Atlanta felt so desperate to celebrate a pro sports accomplishment in 1991 that the city threw a parade for the Braves, even though they lost the World Series to Minnesota in seven games. An estimated 750,000 people made their way to the parade route downtown, clogging streets and MARTA stations.

It was like an entire metropolitan area screamed in unison, “We lost! But we weren’t half-bad!”

The Braves ended the drought by winning the World Series in 1995. Twenty-two years later, Atlanta fans sit and wait for another celebration, passed on the parade route by Cubs and Cavaliers fans.

The Falcons made it to the Super Bowl in 1998 but their best hopes for defeating Denver probably ended the night before when Eugene Robinson was arrested on a Miami street corner. The Hawks’ last title came when they played in St. Louis in 1958. The Flames won a Stanley Cup — after they moved from Atlanta to Calgary. Georgia won its last title in 1980. Georgia Tech won a share a championship in 1990.

Is the end of a city’s thirst nearing? The NFL playoffs are underway this weekend, and the Falcons are 9-1 to win the Super Bowl, which are the third shortest odds after New England (2-1) and Dallas (4-1).

Below are my rankings of the area sports teams and their championship aspirations. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to limit the rankings to the five most followed teams — Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Georgia football and Georgia Tech football.

1. FALCONS: Close

This is a given because, as the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a first-round bye, they Falcons are literally two wins from going to the Super Bowl and three wins from being champions.

But they're Atlanta's best hope for more reasons than what we're seeing now. Football operations have stabilized with coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The two have worked together and significantly improved the roster and stocked the defense with youth and speed, a positive sign for the future. There is legitimate young talent on defense now: Desmond Trufant (though injured), Vic Beasley (NFL sack leader), Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell.

The offense is more than fine, thanks to the offseason signing of free-agent center Alex Mack (who's under contract for five years) and quarterback Matt Ryan, who has rebounded from arguably his worst season to have his best. He is an MVP candidate after throwing for a franchise-record 4,944 yards and 38 touchdown passes.

2. GEORGIA: Potentially close

I can hear it now: "There goes the media overhyping Georgia again." This isn't that. It's just logical the Bulldogs are the next closest team to potentially winning a title.

They play in the relatively weak SEC East, which affords them a chance to make it to the conference title game, which in turn affords them the chance to make it to the playoffs. Their 2017 schedule includes an SEC West rotation game against Mississippi State, not Alabama. Their road schedule: Notre Dame, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia Tech.

If Georgia loses a couple of games that it’s not supposed to, it’s because, well, Georgia always loses games it’s not supposed to. But the defense should be among the nation’s best next season, and quarterback Jacob Eason should be better in his second season. Nick Chubb coming back also helps. So, yes, a spot in the College Football Playoff is possible.

3. BRAVES: Nowhere close

The Hawks are in tear-down mode, which is where the Braves were a year ago. So …

The Braves likely are at least two years from contending, and even that assumes a lot. The young pitchers are the ultimate key to this rebuild, and they haven’t shown enough at this stage to prove: 1) Whether they’re the real deal; or 2) If they’re the real deal, when they’ll be ready.

The Braves have tried to buy themselves some time by signing 40-somethings Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to slap a bandage on the rotation, a strange way in pro sports to go into a new building. There are some nice pieces for the future, including Dansby Swanson, but this group looks like a .500 team, maybe.

And now this: Fox Sports reported Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips blocked a trade to the Braves in November, an odd decision given he grew up in Stone Mountain, played for the last-place Reds last season and may see his playing time reduced. So much for wanting to be a part of this.

4. HAWKS: Nowhere close

Trading Kyle Korver to Cleveland and seemingly preparing to move Paul Millsap is basically an admission that their offseason moves failed, and they need to start over. But who on the roster represents a building block?

Millsap is the last remaining starter from the conference-finals, 60-win team only two seasons ago. But the roster is only one problem. It’s not certain how owner Tony Ressler and his partners view coach/president Mike Budenholzer as the franchise’s big-picture guy, nor where general manager Wes Wilcox fits in. The on-court problems can’t be fixed until the off-court situation improves and has clarity.

5. GEORGIA TECH: Not likely

I know the Jackets won the UPI title in 1990 when polls mattered, but it’s hard for me to imagine them competing at that level given the resources currently available to them, the academic restrictions and the fact that Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and others are so far ahead of them in the ACC.

None of this is a statement on coach Paul Johnson. It's more about how the school views itself and the importance of athletics. New athletic director Todd Stansbury will do well at the school, but I'm not sure that his mission will include changing some of the institutional structures in place.

Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. All episodes can be downloaded and heard on iTunes or via WSBRadio.com. New episodes every Monday and Thursday.