Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.
“The city is hungry,” the Atlanta linebacker said. “You can feel it when you’re in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, ‘Go Falcons.’ Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black.”
The Falcons will play in the NFC Championship Game for only the third time when they play host to the San Francisco 49ers today, a matchup of teams that come into this game from very different historical perspectives.
For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise’s glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and ’90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
The Falcons? They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Heck, they’ve only gotten that far one time, during the 1998 season when a charismatic bunch known as the “Dirty Birds” shockingly made a run to the big game – and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway’s finale.
“They’re trying to recapture greatness,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We’re trying to break the ceiling on it.”
While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC’s top seed and playing at home, they opened as a three-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week’s rout of the Green Bay Packers.
The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed.
Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history. Kaepernick scored two touchdowns and finished with 181 yards rushing, a postseason record for a quarterback.
The Falcons are coming off their first playoff win since the 2004 season, erasing a major stumbling block with their 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn’t nearly as easy as the 49ers’ victory.
“It’s a good thing to get that first win out of the way,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think that everyone did a great job of not letting it distract us, but it can be distracting.”
Now, to get started on a playoff winning streak.
“I feel the same as I did last week,” Ryan insisted. “When you walk in and you turn on the film on a Monday or a Tuesday and you’re getting ready to play your next game, there’s a whole new laundry list of problems that you need to address. That’s more of where my focus has been, and I think that’s where it needs to be.”
While Kaepernick is just getting started on what looks to be a hugely promising career, Tony Gonzalez is winding things down.
The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in Canton, having caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except Rice and revolutionized his often-obscure position. Despite a huge season in which he led the Falcons in catches, the 36-year-old has repeatedly said he’s 95 percent sure this will be his final year.
Like Ryan, he erased the one big blotch on his record by winning his first playoff game last weekend, making the final catch to set up Bryant’s winning kick.
But Gonzalez would really like to go out with a ring.
Two wins to go.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “Win a championship and get out of here.”
Kaepernick’s performance against the Packers was so impressive that San Francisco actually became a bigger favorite during the week, at least according to the oddsmakers, who said Atlanta was the biggest underdog of any top-seeded team playing at home since the playoffs expanded in 1978.
The Falcons are comfortable with that role. All season long, they’ve been criticized for failing to win games impressively, even at the Georgia Dome, struggling mightily to beat lightweights such as Oakland, Arizona and Carolina.
“We’ve had that chip on our shoulder from day one,” Peterson said. “But I don’t think me or anybody in this locker room has a problem with playing the underdog role, playing the team that everybody’s doubting. We’ve been that every week.”
While the 49ers are two wins away from joining the baseball Giants in giving San Francisco a pair of sports champions, the Falcons are eager to turn Atlanta’s reputation in a different direction.
In the 1980s, the city was saddled with some truly awful teams and well-deserving of its moniker – Loserville. The baseball Braves turned things around in the ‘90s, going on an unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles that included the city’s only major championship, a 1995 World Series title. But even the Braves were known more for all their playoff flops than their lone title.
At least they captured one. The Falcons never even had back-to-back winning seasons before Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008. Since then, Atlanta has strung together five straight winning records, four playoff appearances and two division titles.
Now, all that’s left is a championship.
The city is ready.
“If we could break that ceiling,” DeCoud said, “it could usher in a great new era of professional sports in Atlanta.”