At­lanta braces for night­mar­ish Su­per Bowl matchup

The Standard Journal - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry AP Sports Colum­nist

AT­LANTA — Coming off two straight trips to the play­offs, the At­lanta Fal­cons had high hopes of be­com­ing the first true home team in Su­per Bowl his­tory.

Well, those plans were dashed be­fore the leaves changed colors.

Now, the city is left with a night­mare of a po­ten­tial matchup as it pre­pares to host the NFL ti­tle game for the third time. That was the sit­u­a­tion be­fore press time, with the con­fer­ence cham­pi­onships played on Sun­day well af­ter the pa­per went to bed over the week­end. We’ll have an up­date next week for what hap­pened.)

New Or­leans vs. New Eng­land.

“Lord please don’t let there be a Saints Pa­tri­ots Su­per Bowl in At­lanta,” an ap­par­ent Fal­cons fan wrote on Twit­ter, ex­press­ing the sen­ti­ment of the en­tire A-T-L in less than 280 char­ac­ters.

It very well could hap­pen. On Sun­day, the Saints will host the Los An­ge­les Rams in the NFC cham­pi­onship game. As soon as that’s over, the Pa­tri­ots will take the field in Kansas City to face the Chiefs for the AFC ti­tle.

The win­ners will head to Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium for the Feb. 3 Su­per Bowl.

All of At­lanta is hold­ing its breath, hop­ing it can ex­hale rather than hold its nose for the big game.

“I don’t even have to watch the games this week­end to know that this year’s su­per bowl is gonna be saints-pa­tri­ots be­cause the sports gods hate at­lanta that much,” said an­other post on Twit­ter, filled with dread.

In­deed, a city that has en­dured so much sport­ing heart­break can sense what’s coming.

The Saints are the Fal­cons’ most bit­ter ri­val, a twice-ayear NFC South op­po­nent that al­ready has some pretty big brag­ging rights over At­lanta: New Or­leans won the Su­per Bowl nearly a decade ago.

The Fal­cons are still without a cham­pi­onship, though they have only them­selves to blame for that gap­ing hole in their 53-year-old tro­phy case. Two sea­sons ago, at the Su­per Bowl in Hous­ton, At­lanta stormed to a 28-3 lead over the Pa­tri­ots to set off a pre­ma­ture cel­e­bra­tion.

Of course, we all know how the Fal­cons-Pa­tri­ots story ended.

Tom Brady di­rected a come­back for the ages, lead­ing New Eng­land to a 34-28 vic­tory in over­time. The mem­o­ries from that game still cause gri­maced looks in At­lanta, where 3-28 has be­come a lin­ger­ing punch­line.

A cou­ple of months af­ter the game, Bos­ton cel­e­brated “Fal­cons Day” on March 28. You know, be­cause that’s 3-28 on the cal­en­dar. Oth­ers dubbed it “Choking Aware­ness Day.” Af­ter Texas A&M squan­dered a 34-point lead in a loss to UCLA, a par­ody ac­count said the Ag­gies were un­veil­ing a new logo — the Fal­cons’ logo, nat­u­rally.

Even down in the Big Easy, they couldn’t re­sist the chance to pile on. A shop on Mag­a­zine Street of­fered up T-shirts with a score­board-like de­sign “283, 3rd, 2:12” — that point in the game when At­lanta was still up by 25. A plane flew over the Su­per­dome pulling a “3-28” ban­ner.

The Fal­cons re­turned to the play­offs last sea­son, only to lose a heart­break­ing di­vi­sional round game at Philadel­phia to the even­tual cham­pion Ea­gles. Still, it looked as though coach Dan Quinn was build­ing some­thing spe­cial in At­lanta: a team fea­tur­ing a dy­namic of­fense led by quar­ter­back Matt Ryan and re­ceiver Julio Jones, along with a young, ag­gres­sive de­fense that was mak­ing rapid im­prove­ment.

Per­haps that Su­per Bowl dis­ap­point­ment was merely a warm-up to the city’s great­est sport­ing tri­umph, a ti­tle that could be cel­e­brated right at home. At­lanta fans looked hope­fully at that fi­nal game on this year’s sched­ule, to be played at the Fal­cons’ new $1.5 bil­lion home. They dreamed of their team fi­nally fin­ish­ing the job it started two years ago in Hous­ton.

Then came a rash of sea­son-end­ing in­juries and a five-game los­ing streak that sent the Fal­cons tum­bling to a 7-9 record, their worst since 2014. They lost both meet­ings to the Saints, in­clud­ing an over­time setback in Week 3 that es­sen­tially set the tone for the dis­ap­point­ing cam­paign. When the time the Fal­cons played their fi­nal home game, there were tens of thou­sands of empty seats in their 72,000-seat sta­dium.

New Or­leans romped to the best record (13-3) in the NFC, though Fal­cons fans were feel­ing a bit hope­ful when Philadel­phia raced out to a 14-0 lead in the di­vi­sional round game last week­end.

Much like At­lanta’s lead in Su­per Bowl LI, it didn’t last. New Or­leans ral­lied for a 20-14 vic­tory.

Now, with one more win, the Saints will head to At­lanta seek­ing their sec­ond cham­pi­onship.

Talk about rub­bing it in: The NFC cham­pion will use the Fal­cons’ train­ing fa­cil­ity in sub­ur­ban Flow­ery Branch for its prac­tices. As in, New Or­leans would claim At­lanta’s field.

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