Today has been looming since the NFL schedules were released in April, and everyone knew what theme awaited the Super Bowl LI rematch.
The Atlanta Falcons just didn’t count on adding a fresh layer of hell before heading to New England.
Enduring the “28-3” meme after blowing the biggest lead in Super Bowl history is bad enough. But letting “17-0” slip away … at home … to Jay Cutler?
Graded on a curve, that might be even more improbable than letting arguably the greatest quarterback of all time engineer what happened in February on the game’s biggest stage. It might not linger as long, but it can’t feel good.
Yet that’s where these Falcons are, coming into the most anticipated regular-season game of the 2017 season. A combination of offensive sputtering and a growing reputation for being unable to hold a lead is concerning.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn refuses to accept that his team has developed a closing problem since the Super Bowl.
“Not facing any demons here,” he said this week. “It’s the 2017 version of us. We don’t get to replay (the Super Bowl). How it ended was a bummer. We’ve talked about it maybe once or twice. But what I can say is when you get back into the regular season, you just get right back into it.”
Five games into the season, the Falcons share first place in the NFC South with a 3-2 record. Some would argue that mark should be 5-0 had they not lost the last two games at home to the underwhelming Bills and Dolphins.
However, it could just as easily be 1-4 if not for a couple breaks that prevented other fourth-quarter catastrophes.
In the season opener at Chicago, the Falcons lead 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter yet barely hung on to win 23-17 when the Bears dropped two passes and failed to score in four plays after getting first-and-goal at the Falcons 5. Phew.
Two weeks later at Detroit, the Falcons jumped out to a 17-3 lead and still led 30-23 in the fourth quarter before things got dicey again. The Lions, down 30-26, drove 88 yards to a first down at the Atlanta 1 with 19 seconds left. They seemingly had it won on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate with eight seconds remaining, but it was overturned on replay when it was ruled Tate’s knee was down short of the goal-line. Since the Lions had no timeouts left, a mandatory 10-second runoff ended the game much to Atlanta’s relief.
There was no such luck last Sunday when Cutler and the Dolphins scored 20 unanswered points in the second half and hung on when Matt Ryan’s late pass was broken up by former Silver Bluff/Clemson defensive back Cordrea Tankersley and intercepted by former Georgia safety Reshad Jones in the final minute.
Considering the Dolphins had scored only three offensive touchdowns all season coming into the game yet Cutler threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter, it was as unlikely a meltdown as the Super Bowl.
Now come the Patriots to reopen scabs that haven’t had a chance to fully heal.
“It’s running through everybody’s mind,” said defensive end Vic Beasley. “Everybody remembers the last time we played them. You remember the last outcome.”
Anyone who’s been to Boston recently can’t possibly forget it after rampant distribution of Super Bowl champion T-shirts prominently sporting “28-3” with 2:12 left in the third quarter on them. It’s still a best selling item on Amazon for $21.99. The Patriots put that score and time (not the overtime final) on the scoreboards when the team received their Super Bowl rings before the season opener against Kansas City.
Other teams have gotten in on the trolling, with NFC South rival Tampa Bay getting into a social media joust with the Falcons by posting “We ain’t worried ‘bout nothing!” over a picture Vernon Hargreaves (No. 28) and Jameis Winston (No. 3) bumping fists.
Quinn is doing the best he can to downplay it.
“It’s not anything that you need to use for motivation,” he said Monday. “You’re going to be pissed off about it, but what you can use it for is we think we can get a lot better in ’17 than we were in ’16. You don’t get to go replay it. Yeah, there’s a part of that that’s motivation for sure, but it wasn’t a driving force for us.”
“For us only to be in the present moment, we couldn’t keep looking back in the rearview mirror. … We wanted to make sure we’re going to be the best version we could be, and we couldn’t do that if we kept replaying a game that we can’t change.”
The best thing the Falcons can do to exorcise any growing demons would be to put away Brady and the Pats today. The offense under Steve Sarkisian needs to be a little more efficient (and perhaps find Julio Jones in the end zone). Turn one more red-zone trip into seven points instead of three and the closing issues get relief. Then they can forget the past and focus on beating the Panthers and Saints and Bucs in an NFC South free-for-all.
“We like to live in the moment and make the best of now, because that’s the only thing we can control is today,” said Grady Jarrett.
It’s not bad to remember that last year’s Falcons were 4-3 at one point and blew three fourth-quarter leads in the regular season yet still developed into an almost unstoppable force down the stretch.
Getting that back might be as easy as getting through tonight without any more scars.