Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ben's Sports Take: Worst loss in Atlanta sports history?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 at 12:41 PM

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There are numerous aspects of Atlanta that make it one of the most inhabited and frequently visited cities in the country—the city's sports scene isn't one of them.

So when we get the opportunity to host a game of tremendous significance in perhaps the most popular sport in the world, it would behoove the city to have its home team perform well in order to disprove Atlanta's reputation as one of the worst sports cities in the U.S.

Unfortunately, that was not the case last Saturday night as the Falcons were able to cram 45 years of ineptitude into a single three-hour exhibition of how not to play winning football.

The 48-21 drubbing ranks as the seventh largest margin of defeat by a home team in NFL playoff history and the second largest margin of defeat by a home team in Divisional round history. (Our thanks to the 1943 New York Giants, who lost 28-0 at home to the Washington Redskins, for maintaining that distinction)

But on Saturday night as I watched the horror unfold on my 42-inch window of despair, struggling to stifle the nausea and gut-wrenching agony, I thought to myself: Is this the worst loss in Atlanta sports history?

The short answer would be yes, but allow me to divulge a slightly longer explanation as to why the Falcons' 48-21 loss was, in fact, the city's most debilitating defeat.

Here's a list of the worst losses by each of Atlanta's four professional sports franchises...you be the judge:

Flames/Thrashers
3. April 10, 1979: NHL Playoffs Preliminary Round
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Atlanta Flames L, 2-1
—The Flames spent eight years in Atlanta and enjoyed their best season during the 1978-79 campaign. After posting a 41-31-8 regular season record, the Flames entered the postseason as the No. 6 overall seed. Atlanta's preliminary round opponent was the No. 9-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs, whose regular season record of 34-33-13 earned the Flames home-ice advantage over the course of the three-game series.

Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs only needed two games to sweep the Flames right out of the playoffs. Following Toronto's 2-1 victory in the Omni, the Flames lost 7-4 two days later on the Maple Leafs' home ice. Thus, ending the best regular season in Flames history.

2. April 12, 1980: NHL Playoffs Preliminary Round
New York Rangers vs. Atlanta Flames L, 5-2
—In what proved to be the final game for the Flames here in Atlanta, the New York Rangers visited the Omni with a 2-1 series lead and defeated Atlanta 5-2 to advance to the NHL quarterfinals. Exactly one year after seeing their best regular season record result in a first-round playoff exit, the Flames exited the postseason early once again and were on their way to Calgary. It would be 19 years before Atlanta would see another NHL team call the city home.

1. April 12-18, 2007: NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Games 1-4
New York Rangers vs. Atlanta Thrashers L, 15-8 (combined)
—After winning their first division title in franchise history, the Thrashers entered the 2007 NHL Playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Awaiting them in the first round was the No. 6-seeded Rangers—the same team that ended the Flames' stay in Atlanta 27 years prior.

Games 1 and 2 were held at Philips Arena with the Thrashers dropping both contests by a one-goal margin. Atlanta headed to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 and was drubbed 7-0, falling behind 3-0 in the first playoff series in franchise history. A 4-2 defeat in Game 4 sealed the sweep for the Rangers and any hopes of building momentum towards NHL popularity in Atlanta were essentially gashed.

The Thrashers have yet to make it back to the Playoffs.

Hawks
3. May 4-10, 2010: NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Games 1-4
Orlando Magic vs. Atlanta Hawks L, 429-328 (combined)
—Whenever you suffer the worst four-game sweep in NBA history, you're destined to make the list of worst losses in Atlanta history. The Hawks definitely fit the bill after being swept by the Orlando Magic in last year's NBA Playoffs by a combined 101 points. The 25.3 average margin of defeat was the largest in a four-game series—even outdoing the Hawks vs. Cavaliers series from the 2009 postseason where Atlanta was defeated by an average of 18 points per game.

The Hawks were seeded No. 3 in the Eastern Conference and were looking to build on the incremental success they had made over the final two seasons—making the Playoffs in '08 for the first time since the 1998-99 season and advancing to the Conference Semis in '09.

2. May 20, 1988: NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 6
Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks L, 102-100
—After stealing Game 5 of the '88 Conference Semis in Boston, the Hawks returned to the Omni with an opportunity to beat the No. 1-seeded Celtics and advance further than any other team in Atlanta franchise history. 16,541 fans packed the Omni on the night of May 20 to witness what they thought to be an historic victory for their hometown Hawks. But as Cliff Levingston's last-second shot attempt missed wide of the rim, the Hawks saw their best chances of reaching the Conference Finals since moving to Atlanta in 1968 slip away.

1. May 22, 1988: NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7
Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics L, 118-116
—Despite losing Game 6 in the Omni, the Hawks still had a chance to reach the Conference Finals two nights later in Boston. In one of the NBA's greatest postseason games, future Hall of Famers Domonique Wilkins and Larry Bird went toe-to-toe down the stretch. Wilkins socred a game-high 47 points, but it wasn't enough as Bird scored 20 of his 34 points in the final quarter to lead the Celtics to the two-point win.

After suffering the two worst losses in franchise history in back-to-back games, it's easy to see why the Hawks have struggled to do much of anything since—reaching Game 5 of the Conference Semis just once since (1994).

Falcons
3. December 4, 1976: NFL Week 13
Atlanta Falcons vs. Los Angeles Rams L, 59-0
—This is the only regular season game on the list and for good reason. The most lopsided loss in Falcons history came at the hands of the L.A. Rams and is on the list due to the sheer domination that took place.

Here's a brief statistical recap of that afternoon:

Total yards: ATL-81 LA-569
Passing yards: ATL-22 LA-359
Rushing yards: ATL-59 LA-210
First downs: ATL-8 LA-30
Turnovers: ATL-4 LA-1
Sacks allowed: ATL-6 LA-1

The Falcons finished 4-10 in 1976 and were outscored 312-172, but their 59-0 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was the pièce de résistance.

2. January 4, 1981: NFC Divisional Playoffs
Dallas Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons L, 30-27
—In just their second venture into the NFL Playoffs in franchise history, the No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons faced off against the No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Atlanta finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and entered the postseason as the NFC's No. 1 overall seed, which meant that they would have a first-round bye.

The Falcons took advantage of that extra week off by taking a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter against Dallas. But, in traditional Atlanta fashion, the Falcons allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Drew Pearson with 47 seconds left to play, giving the Cowboys a 30-27 lead.

With Falcon-hysteria at an all-time high, the 30-27 loss really delayed the growth of the NFL in Atlanta and perhaps intrinsically caused the franchise to grow accustomed to failure as the Falcons would make the Playoffs just three times over the next 17 seasons.

1. January 15, 2010: NFC Divisional Playoffs
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons L, 48-21
—Just as they had done in 1981, the Falcons entered the NFL Playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and hosted the Divisional Round here in Atlanta in front of a city dying for a successful sports team. And just like they'd done 30 years prior, the Falcons failed tremendously in front of a national audience—this time by the final score of 48-21.

An argument can be made for the 1981 game against Dallas being a worse loss due to the fact that the Falcons had the game won and could have easily advanced to the NFC Title Game. But the combination of utter dominance and inexplicable suckiness that took place last Saturday night will mystify the city of Atlanta for months—if not years—to come. A blowout of that nature on a stage of that magnitude with hopes of that many resting on the outcome, it was an epic collapse and a debilitating defeat—and for Atlanta sports fans, that's really saying something.

Braves
3. October 27, 1991: World Series, Game 7
Atlanta Braves vs. Minnesota Twins L, 1-0 in 10 innings
—It was one of the most egregious base-running errors in postseason history and it cost the Braves a chance to win their first World Series since moving to Atlanta in 1966.

In the top of the eighth inning of a scoreless game, Lonnie Smith was on first base and Terry Pendleton was at the plate when Bobby Cox called for a hit and run. Pendleton ripped a double to left-center field and Smith, who left at the crack of the bat, should have scored the go-ahead run with ease. Instead, Smith froze at second base and was only able to make it to third. Ron Gant followed with a ground out to first base, David Justice was intentionally walked and Sid Bream hit into a double play to end the inning without Smith crossing home plate. An RBI single from Minnesota's Gene Larkin in the bottom of the tenth inning gave the Twins the 1-0 victory and postponed the Braves' World Series party another four years.

It would later be determined that Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch pretended to start a double play in an attempt to trick Smith into thinking he had the ball in his glove as he approached second base. Knoblauch's deception caused Smith to hesitate as he rounded second and ultimately cost the Braves the go-ahead run.

2. October 23-27, 1999: World Series, Games 1-4
New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves L, 21-9 (combined)
—Despite winning 103 regular season games and having a pitching rotation consisting of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the Braves found a way to not only lose the 1999 World Series, but get swept in doing so.

Atlanta, which finished a league-best 103-59 during the regular season, defeated the Houston Astros and the New York Mets will relative ease in the NLDS and NLCS respectively and entered the World Series as a slight favorite to defeat the American League Champion Yankees. The Braves had homefield advantage and three future Hall of Famers in the starting rotation—not to mention Kevin Millwood, who finished the regular season 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA over 228 innings.

But after batting just .200 as a team and recording only 26 hits over the four-game series, the Braves saw themselves lose another World Series—their fourth defeat in five tries. Atlanta has made it past the first round of the Playoffs only once since the 1999 season despite winning the N.L. East every year until 2005.

1. October 23, 1996: World Series, Game 4
New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves L, 8-6 in 10 innings
—In perhaps the biggest contender for 'Worst Loss in Atlanta Sports History', the Braves took a 6-0 lead into the sixth inning at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Yankees cut the lead in half thanks to a Jermaine Dye fielding error and a couple of singles.

Still clinging to a 6-3 lead in the top of the eighth, All-Star closer Mark Wohlers came in to try and convert the ever-elusive 6-out save. The Yankees led off the inning with back-to-back singles and a botched double play turn by the usually-reliable Rafael Belliard put runners on the corners with one out. Jim Leyritz, who had hit only 7 home runs in 265 at-bats during the 1996 regular season, stepped to the plate and on the seventh pitch he saw, crushed a game-tying home run over the left field fence that would forever haunt my dreams, destroy my childhood and perpetuate my disbelief in the existence of a truly merciful God.

Not only was Game 4 a tragic loss for Atlanta fans, but the memory of a 19-year-old Andruw Jones helping the Braves win Games 1 and 2 in Yankee Stadium only to return home and get beat three straight times will forever live as one of the many unfulfilled sports dreams for all Atlantans.

Well, there you have it: The 12 worst losses in Atlanta sports history. I'm sure there are some that I should've left off and others that I missed completely, but it's your turn to rank which ones were the worst of the worst. So have at it and do your best to avoid the liquor cabinet while doing so.

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