With only one Super Bowl appearance in the Atlanta Falcons’ long history, fans are rightfully cautious about the team’s chances to make it to the biggest stage in sports in a couple more weeks.
Atlanta finished the regular season 13-3. That record is about right because despite losing one game it shouldn’t have (against the Saints), the Birds also escaped with a couple of wins they probably shouldn’t have (think the first game with the Panthers and the first game with the Buccaneers).
The 13-3 regular season mark was close to tying the best regular season record in franchise history. Is this the best team in Falcon history? It’s impossible to say at this point — even taking into account the heart-stopping divisional win against Seattle Sunday — because overall that will depend on whether Atlanta wins its first Super Bowl. As a lifelong Falcon fan, here’s a look at some of the other best teams in franchise history:
•2004: Under first-year head coach Jim Mora, Atlanta advanced to the NFC title game before falling to Philadelphia. The Mora era got off to a red hot start but pro football can be a strange game at times. In two more years, Mora would be gone following various Twilight Zone occurrences. Still, the Falcons were very close to their second Super Bowl this season.
•2002: A surprise win against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers on the road in the Wildcard game was the highlight of this season. The Falcons fell the following week to Philadelphia.
•1998: The team went to the Super Bowl under Hall of Fame coach Dan Reeves. The team shocked the Minnesota Vikings on the road in the NFC Championship game and seemed to have all the momentum it would need to defeat Denver in the Super Bowl. However, an inexcusable indiscretion by a key player caused the team to lose focus the night before the game.
•1991: The “2 Legit to Quit” Falcons were probably the most entertaining group of players in franchise history. “Prime Time” Deion Sanders, “Show Time” Andre Rison, Tim McKyer and head coach Jerry Glanville were always entertaining, even if they didn’t always win on the field. The Falcons defeated New Orleans on the road in the first round of the playoffs before falling to eventual Super Bowl champion Washington.
•1982: During a strike-shortened season, the Falcons qualified for the playoffs but were defeated by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round. Owner Rankin Smith was so upset that he fired Bennett believing the team should be faring better in the postseason. Bennett had led the franchise to its only three postseason appearances. After his firing, the team would not return to the playoffs for almost a decade showing that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.
•1980. Many Falcon fans still consider the 1980 team the best. The Falcons were 12-4 and won the NFC West. Like 2013, Atlanta had a bye in the opening round of the playoffs and hosted Dallas in the divisional round. Despite leading for most of the game, the Falcons were stunned by a late Cowboys comeback. The dagger Atlanta fans took in the heart that day still leaves lingering pain decades later.
•1978: It was the first trip to the playoffs in franchise history for Leeman Bennett’s team. Atlanta defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round before falling to Dallas the following week on the road. In the game against the Cowboys, the Falcons outplayed Dallas in the first half and appeared on their way to the upset. However, the Cowboys showed they were used to being in the playoffs while the Falcons seemed to panic some in the second half. Atlanta used a conservative running offense and an all-out blitzing defense, under coordinator Jerry Glanville, to enjoy success in 1978.
As for 2013, Atlanta should be able to overcome its recent stigma of not winning a playoff game. The Falcons, who won’t be on the road again unless they go to the Super Bowl, have the talent and offensive and defensive schemes to make it back to the big event this time. Bold prediction: Atlanta will face New England in the Super Bowl.
Chris Bridges is sports editor of the Barrow Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.