Re­turn of big-stage jit­ters

De­but in new home may be a hit, but doubts per­sist after Su­per flop.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - SPORTS - Bradley con­tin­ued on C8 Mark Bradley

Through 2.75 play­off games — the di­vi­sional round, the NFC Cham­pi­onship and the first 42 min­utes and 53 sec­onds of the Su­per Bowl — the Fal­cons had outscored their op­po­si­tion 128-44. Those foes in­cluded Seattle, Green Bay and New Eng­land, each of which had taken a Lom­bardi Tro­phy over the pre­vi­ous six sea­sons. With 17:07 re­main­ing in Su­per Bowl LI, we At­lantans felt our long­stand­ing skep­ti­cism melt

ing into ut­ter awe. Could an At­lanta team re­ally be do­ing this?

We say again: “This” wasn’t just a team from our star­crossed city tak­ing the big stage; “this” was an At­lanta team ab­so­lutely killing it once there. More than a few folks —

that’s my hand you see raised — be­lieved the Fal­cons would win that day; not one of us fig­ured they’d run away with it like Sec­re­tariat in the Bel­mont. And then … well, you know. Tonight brings an­other big mo­ment — a prime-time game bring­ing Aaron Rodgers and his Pack­ers to town for the first reg­u­lar-sea­son NFL game in

gleam­ing Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium, which might, won­der of won­ders, have its finicky pe­tal roof open for the oc­ca­sion. Is that not a har­monic con­ver­gence?

We an­swer that ques­tion with an­other: Is there ever a har­monic con­ver­gence for At­lanta, hub of the cos­mic sports flop?

I’ll not trot out the litany of in­dig­ni­ties. You know it by heart. You also know that such games — be­fore the bright lights of na­tional TV, fac­ing a big­name op­po­nent — have of­ten brought out the worst in our teams, the Fal­cons es­pe­cially. It was in 2003, with Michael Vick hurt and the team 1-6, that Arthur Blank wrote a let­ter of apol­ogy to the pres­i­dent of ABC for his team’s 36-0 loss to the Rams on “Mon­day Night Foot­ball.”

It was in 1984 that a young(ish) AJC re­porter was tasked with mon­i­tor­ing the ABC feed of a Mon­day night game so as to en­lighten this mar­ket, which had fallen afoul of the NFL’s sellout-or-blackout rule. This mar­ket didn’t miss much. The Fal­cons lost 24-10 to the Rams to fall to 3-5. With the score 24-3, a cam­era caught Fred­die Fal­con, the mas­cot, with his head­piece off. An un­masked Fred­die waved his hand to­ward the field, in­di­cat­ing dis­gust.

Said Frank Gif­ford: “Ap­par­ently Fred­die doesn’t like short passes, ei­ther.”

(The Fal­cons spent the night throw­ing many of those to no ef­fect. The three fa­mous men call­ing the game were not amused.)

O.J. Simp­son: “Ooh, there’s an­other short pass. Guess they’re go­ing to do it un­til they get it right.”

Gif­ford: ‘It wasn’t a sellout, but there were more than 50,000 here tonight. And we’re just about here alone now. That re­ally changes the acous­tics.”

Simp­son: “… And there’s an­other short pass.”

Gif­ford: “Ref­eree Jerry Mark­breit is call­ing for the clock to be ad­justed by seven sec­onds.”

Simp­son: “Seven sec­onds? Which way?”

Don Mered­ith: “I know which way I hope.”

The neat thing about the Fal­cons last sea­son was how they made us for­get they were a doomedto-fail At­lanta en­tity. They beat Den­ver, the reign­ing NFL champ, in Mile High. They twice de­stroyed Carolina, the reign­ing NFC champ. They nearly won in Seattle and crushed the Sea­hawks here in Jan­uary. They edged Rodgers and the Pack in Oc­to­ber and routed them with a Su­per berth at stake. And then it was 28-3 and the cor­re­spon­dent who’d lis­tened to the Gif­fer and O.J. and Dandy Don 33 years ago was sit­ting in NRG Sta­dium writ­ing th­ese giddy words: “For once, an At­lanta team met its mo­ment and played bet­ter than we dared to dream.”

For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, that line didn’t see print. But the mem­ory of a great mo­ment gone punchin-the-gut wrong hasn’t faded. To wit: In their first game since Feb. 5, the Fal­cons led an or­di­nary op­po­nent by 10 in­side the fi­nal eight min­utes, and if the Bears don’t drop a pass we’re scream­ing, “It’s hap­pen­ing again!”

It wasn’t just that the Fal­cons lost a Su­per Bowl. (They’d done that be­fore, you’ll re­call.) It was that they lost a Su­per Bowl after fool­ing us into think­ing they couldn’t lose. It was that, at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment, they re­verted to feck­less Fal­cons. Killer stat: This team made one turnover in three play­off games against the high­est level of com­pe­ti­tion, and that one — Dont’a Hightower’s sack/strip after Devonta Free­man’s whiff — cost them a cham­pi­onship.

It could be that th­ese Fal­cons are good enough — on pa­per, they look ter­rific — to ban­ish all fear and leave no doubt. It could be that they beat Mr. Dis­count Dou­ble-Check for a third time in 10½ months. It could be that the pe­tal roof opens with­out a glitch. But we’re At­lantans, and we learned again in Fe­bru­ary what we’ve known all our lives: There’s no such thing as an At­lanta sure thing.

CUR­TIS COMP­TON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium could have an open roof tonight in its first reg­u­lar-sea­son game for the Fal­cons and kicker Matt Bryant as they take on the Pack­ers in prime time.

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