This past Sunday's NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers wasn't just another loss for the Atlanta Falcons.
It was a missed opportunity to change things in a city seemingly too busy to win meaningful games — and which last captured a title when the Braves won the 1995 World Series.
That was the year Chipper Jones played his breakout rookie season. It was also a happy time when Falcons coach June Jones and quarterback Jeff George still played nice and Hawks guard Mookie Blaylock remained a force to be reckoned with. The Thrashers weren't among the NHL's worst franchises, in part because they didn't exist yet.
Eighteen years later, Atlanta sports teams have made 29 combined playoff appearances — including seven Falcons postseason trips — but have failed to win a championship. The city's inability to win important matchups during that time has slowly escalated into Clevelandic proportions, whose championship drought dates back to the Jim Brown era almost 50 years ago.
Few questioned how much Sunday's game mattered to the Atlanta Falcons. One local reporter said before kickoff that this game was the organization's chance to enter the upper echelon of NFL teams, a group defined by sustained success and the occasional Super Bowl title. Another tweeted that this was the second-most important sports event in the city's history, falling only behind the 1996 Olympic Games' opening ceremony. However one slices it, the Falcons hosted their first-ever NFC Championship game. It was also the franchise's best shot at winning its first Lombardi trophy in its 47-year history.
And for a while, it looked possible. The team jumped out of the gates and looked like it might just mosey its way down to New Orleans. Seven plays into the contest, quarterback Matt Ryan launched a 46-yard pass downfield into wide receiver Julio Jones' delicate hands, hitting him in stride to put the birds up a touchdown. The Big Easy seemed within reach.
The Falcons continued their attack, putting 17 points on the board in the game's first 16 minutes. Jones had already caught more than 100 yards, provoking some analysts to suggest that he might break Buffalo Bills wideout Eric Moulds' 240-yard playoff performance 15 years ago. The defense even prevented Niners' quarterback Colin Kaepernick from another blistering start, an impressive feat given how he shellacked the Packers the week before.
Things started so well that Joe Buck praised the more than 70,000 "earsplittingly" loud fans packed into the Georgia Dome. But soon, the game's momentum turned in the Niners' favor as the Falcons' offense sputtered.
Head coach Mike Smith said after the game that "five or six" plays ultimately led to the Falcons' demise. One of those came with 1:13 left in the game as Ryan misfired on a short pass to wide receiver Roddy White.
Pain emanated throughout the stadium as the cameras panned to the hordes of dismayed Falcons fans. Owner Arthur Blank hung his head low, while tight end Tony Gonzalez appeared stunned as he pondered what was likely the final play of his illustrious 16-year career. One local TV reporter tweeted photos of helium tanks and wrapped confetti and other outlets reported that one fan knifed another as they exited the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons' season ended with two simultaneously exhilarating and excruciating postseason games.
Most who watched the borderline apocalyptic 20-point collapse against the Seahawks the week before followed by a miraculous comeback will likely remember that moment for years. This week's relinquished 17-point lead — the largest comeback victory or choke job in NFC Championship history, depending on one's perspective — will on the other hand leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Falcons fans.
The Falcons played admirably, even though they fell yards short of a trip to the Superdome. Ryan threw for 396 yards, the second-highest in his five-year career. Jones shined in his best NFL performance, nabbing 11 catches for 182 yards as well as two touchdowns. Cornerback Dunta Robinson's hit on Michael Crabtree at the one-yard line forced a turnover and halted a score in one of the season's most clutch plays. Nevertheless, the impressive performances didn't add up to a victory, which is all that really matters.
What hurts about this defeat isn't so much the Falcons' gameplay. It's the affirmation of Atlanta's reputation as a city with losing sports teams. It's not as anemic as Cleveland in that regard, but Atlanta's moving in that direction with each tragic loss. The team's last two games and recent comeback heroics have even drawn comparisons to the dramatic and improbable 1980 Browns squad known as the "Kardiac Kids."
It's also a loss that caps off a heartbreaking year for Atlanta fans. The often-derided group at the very least has earned some credibility given that its devotion has been tested during the past calendar year. That includes sustaining trauma from both the Braves' collapse in the wildcard "play-in" game and even the Georgia Bulldogs' narrow loss in the SEC Championship, if you want to look slightly beyond the metro Atlanta area.
As the city stands to lose Gonzalez and Jones, two future Hall of Famers, in a four-month period, new legacies with younger stars will soon appear. The Julio Jones reign has commenced for the Falcons, the Braves' B.J. Upton-era will begin any day now, and what lies ahead for the Hawks remains to be seen.
As Atlanta's teams look forward, its fans can only hope that the nearly two decades without a title will become a fleeting memory as well. For the time being, the confetti will have to wait.
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