With the fourth quarter clock ticking down and my Atlanta Falcons in total disarray, I leaned back into my couch, kicked my feet up onto the coffee table, and allowed myself one small sip of my appropriately potent adult beverage. I also exhaled, deeply.
This was not, after all, an entirely new feeling. Rooting for the Falcons has basically been a lifetime of rooting around inside that exact helpless feeling, watching over and over again as the Dirty Birds find some footing, stumble and then finally soar gloriously into the sky, only to eventually fly too close to the sun and have their wings melted in some inglorious fashion.
Desmond Trufant #21 of the Atlanta Falcons intercepts a pass to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.
So as Carson Wentz confidently marched the Eagles down the field to take a 20-17 lead with 3:13 to play, the feeling that consumed me was one of inescapability. I was riding on a train heading toward a collapsed bridge, and there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation, short of Superman saving the day.
Despite the Falcons playing lights out defense for most of the game against Philly, folding just seems to be what we do best. That’s what has historically separated the Falcons from the greatest NFL franchises. We can complete, we can make some big plays, we can even win big games from time to time, but time and again, we haven’t been able to seal the deal when it matters the most. It’s happened in little ways all throughout my life, and then it happened in the most public and embarrassing way possible during Super Bowl LI, when we blew a 28-3 lead against the Patriots.
True story: The last NFL game I attended in-person was Super Bowl LI. Yep, I was there in person in Houston, as the Falcons did the most Falconsy thing they’d ever done. When the game ended, I sat there, numb, and then, to add insult to insult, I had to go back to my hotel room and immediately write about the experience.
Any right-minded person probably would have checked out right there and then. Sports is supposed to be fun, right? These are games, aren’t they? This is our escape from our 9-to-5, a chance to revel in some fun for a few hours and forget about the guest bathroom that needs updating or that memo our boss is waiting for us to finish.
And that’s the defining thing about fandom: We don’t just throw it away. We can’t. It’s an investment, with admittedly decreasing returns. But what the heck else am I supposed to do? I’ve invested my life in this team, I can’t turn and run now. I was there when Joe Montana was carving up Charles Dimry, when Deion high-stepped his way back into the Georgia Dome,
Rooting for the teams we root for is an innate thing ticking inside of us. The Falcons could blow five Super Bowls in a row in increasingly debilitating ways, and I’ll still be there on opening day, believing that finally, THIS is our year. I hate the New Orleans Saints with every bit of my being, but part of me understands why their fans are so mad that they are consistently screwed by the refs–all we want is for our teams to have a chance to win, and when anything messes with that opportunity, it sucks. (A much bigger part of me, however, finds it hilarious that the Saints keep getting screwed by the refs and I hope it never ends.)
Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts after a Julio Jones touchdown late in the second half of an NFL game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images.
The Falcons opened this season by getting drilled in Minnesota, somehow losing 28-12 to a Vikings team that only attempted 10 passes. Having our second game against the Eagles on Sunday Night Football seemed like a recipe for disaster, or at least some good ol’ fashioned public embarrassment.
The first 58 minutes were a mix of everything, good and bad. The Falcons were getting consistent pressure on Carson Wentz and intercepting passes from their asses. Offensively, the Falcons opened strong but as the Eagles realized they could blitz without remorse, Good Matt Ryan started increasingly doing more and more Bad Matt Ryan things. Ryan makes some awesome little plays that get overlooked, like getting the Eagles to jump offside on 3rd and 1 with 2:48 left, giving the Falcons a new set of downs. He also does some unbelievably dumb stuff, like passing the ball directly to the opposing team in the red zone, or trying to force the ball into double coverage to Calvin Ridley (which, weirdly, Cris Collinsworth praised him for on the broadcast).
Then it all started happening again. The Eagles methodically moved down the field, as Wentz made great play after great play, finally taking a 20-17 lead with 3:13 left. In general, I feel more comfortable with Ryan in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense than any other format, but even in that scenario last night, as the Falcons found themselves staring at fourth and three, with the play clock flirting with zero, things didn’t look good. Sigh.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, Superman arrived:
There are three tiny things I love about this play, which I may or may not have watched about a hundred times in the last twelve hours:
1. Watch Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews (#70) kick out and come over and just absolutely destroy Eagles DB Avonte Maddox.
2. The moment receiver Mo Sanu (#12), who is the other Falcons blocker on the play, sees Julio hit daylight (after possibly getting away with an uncalled block in the back), he throws a celebratory punch into the sky, even all the way back on the 45 yard line.
3. On the original broadcast angle, the moment Julio hits the first down line and sees that the Eagles defender has the angle on him, Julio’s head drops ever-so-slightly as he shifts into a different gear and hits a speed that only he possesses. Faster than a speeding bullet, boom, there went Julio.
Like Sanu, in that moment I pumped a fist repeatedly from my couch, appreciating that moment of disbelief. Was this happening? Were the Falcons doing something awesome? This was happening! It happened!!
(And then the Falcons nearly blew it but somehow hung on to win the game.)
I have no idea what to expect from this Falcons team. The NFL is such that you can go from the outhouse to the penthouse in any one season. So much about success in the NFL relies on luck, which is something we haven’t seemed to have had much of through the years. The NFL gameplay product is weirder and probably less appealing than ever, with penalties all over the place and everything constantly being reviewed via replay. (Last night my six-year-old son asked why there were orange flags and red flags being thrown all over the field after every play. I told him I was pretty confused by that as well.)
The Falcons might not be the Cowboys or the Patriots or the 49ers or the Packers, NFL franchises with decades of history and a strong championship tradition. But unlike all those other teams, the Falcons are mine. When it comes to the NFL, they’re all I’ve got. They belong to me and I belong to them.
And one of these days, we’ll figure this whole Super Bowl thing out, together.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.