ATLANTA -- Cornelius Bennett can admit it now. He never expected to get another chance at a Super Bowl ring with the Atlanta Falcons.
When the linebacker signed with the Falcons in 1996 after going to four title games with the Buffalo Bills, his unspoken goals were modest. It would have been inappropriate to speak his mind at the time, but the Super Bowl wasn't on the list.
Not in Atlanta. Not after three decades of mediocrity.
"I can't lie," Bennett said. "I wish I could say, yeah, I knew we were going to turn this thing around. All I wanted to do when I came to Atlanta was make this a respectable football team. Hopefully, one that would consistently go to the playoffs.
"But to have a chance to get to the Super Bowl? No, I couldn't realistically say that I expected this."
Bennett will join an elite group of players who have taken part in five Super Bowls when the Falcons play in their first, meeting the Denver Broncos at Miami's Pro Player Stadium on Jan. 31.
Only one player will have more title games. Denver defensive tackle Mike Lodish, a former teammate of Bennett's during those Super Bowl years in Buffalo, will be making his second straight appearance with the Broncos.
Lodish finally earned a championship ring last year when the Broncos upset Green Bay. Bennett has yet to be part of a winning Super Bowl team, suffering through four straight losses by the Bills from 1991-94.
Maybe that's why he had such a fire in his eyes but a sense of desperation in his voice as he celebrated in the locker room following the 30-27 victory over Minnesota in the NFC championship game.
"Give me a hug, big fellow," he told teammate Gene Williams, pulling him into an embrace. "Let's go down to Miami and win this thing."
At age 33, Bennett feels fortunate to have another chance. His very career was in doubt after he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and spent more than a month in jail during the offseason.
The case stemmed from a May 1997 sexual encounter in a Buffalo hotel room. Bennett, who is married, was charged after the victim was treated for trauma and skin cuts.
Bennett entered counseling and became a born-again Christian, serving his sentence with the help of a Bible. According to his teammates and coach Dan Reeves, the linebacker emerged from jail with a different outlook on life.
"At the beginning of the season, I was so thankful that coach Reeves kept me on this football team," Bennett said. "He believed in me, so now I have to contribute to make this a good football team."
Bennett, a Pro Bowl alternate, led the Falcons with 120 tackles this season, also breaking up eight passes and recovering two fumbles. After a dismal first season in Atlanta, when the team was 3-13, he has spent the past two years spearheading a defensive revitalization.
"Even with some of the things that happened to him in the offseason, he bounced back," said fellow linebacker Jessie Tuggle. "It's almost like he's a changed person now. He's very personal. He works very hard. He keeps the team motivated. He's a leader. He goes out there on Sunday and gives it everything he has."
The Falcons, one of the league's worst defensive teams for most of the decade, ranked second against the run, fourth in points allowed and eighth in total defense this season.
Their most impressive performance came Sunday in the NFC championship game. Atlanta surrendered points to the high-scoring Vikings on their first four possessions, then allowed only a single touchdown over the final 44:37 of the overtime game.
"It is going to take time for us to get some credit," Bennett said. "People are going to say that we don't deserve to be in the Super Bowl. If we win the Super Bowl, people are going to say we were lucky. But all of it counts.
"People tend to call it luck. I call it faith."