Thursday, February 2, 2017

Flying under the radar all the way to Houston

The Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots meet in Super Bowl LI this weekend in Houston, Texas. One team is the subject of constant chatter amongst fans throughout the National Football League while the other was relatively unnoticed for most of the year. It’s not rocket science to figure out which is which.

This season, thanks to a four-game suspension to quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots were right back in the national discussion as the Deflategate saga wore on. Now, this week, as the buildup intensifies with kickoff just over 72 hours away, it’s hard to watch a sports television show without hearing about Brady’s extra motivation to receive the Lombardi trophy this year from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

It seems like the Falcons are taking a back seat to New England this week in Houston, and they’re probably just fine with that. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance last year, the Carolina Panthers were the clear favorite to win their third consecutive NFC South division title. However, Atlanta won four out of five to open the season and looked like the real deal out of the gate. But, plenty remained leery of Atlanta given the hot start the Falcons got off to last season winning their first five games and six of their first seven only to finish 8-8. Back-to-back losses to Seattle and San Diego and a week 10 loss in Philadelphia left Atlanta at 6-4 heading into its bye week and certainly did not quell the doubts. However, the Falcons returned from their bye to end the regular season by winning five out of six and clinching the NFC South and a first-round bye. But, those five wins were all against teams that finished the year below .500 and the one loss was to the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs. It seemed like many people, myself included, needed a show-me win from the Falcons to feel like they were a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
                                               David Goldman/Associated Press
The Falcons celebrate with owner Arthur Blank after
defeating the Packers to advance to Super Bowl LI.

The Falcons gave us just that and then some in the playoffs. A 36-20 whitewashing of the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional round allowed the nation to see just how good the Falcons were. Yet, despite being favored in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, it felt like many analysts were leaning towards Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers was on a mission. He’s the MVP. The Packers haven’t lost since they were 4-6 and Rodgers said they would run the table. I fell for all of that too and was yet again suckered only to see another playoff blowout in the Georgia Dome’s last hurrah as Atlanta trounced Green Bay 44-21.

Which brings us back to Houston. As most of the hot takes leading up to the Super Bowl are centered around Brady and the Patriots, here are the Falcons in a role they’ve seemingly thrived in all season. They finished the regular season with the number one ranked offense statistically in the NFL. New England finished first in total defense. The five previous times the number one offense met the number one defense in the Super Bowl, the team with the top-ranked defense won four times, another narrative that generates Patriots’ buzz. Wouldn’t it be fitting for Atlanta to wrap things up this way? Regardless, full credit to second-year coach Dan Quinn, his staff, and the entire organization for having an outstanding season no matter what the score is on Sunday.

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