On Jan. 22, 2012, the 14-3 San Francisco 49ers stood in shock on their home sideline as the New York Giants had erased a seven-point deficit to win the NFC Championship 20-17 in overtime.
On Jan. 20, 2013, the 14-3 Atlanta Falcons stood in shock on their home sideline as the San Francisco 49ers had erased a 17-point deficit to win the NFC Championship 28-24.
You can read the postgame quotes from those 49ers of a year ago and the Falcons of Sunday evening, and you’d swear they were exactly the same. A feeling of disappointment to that level has to make a team even hungrier.
It just has to.
Falcons fans can hang their hats on a really good season and the fact that they won’t have to hear fans of other teams annoyingly remind them, ad nauseum, their team can’t win a playoff game. Because they did, and they will win plenty more of them in the future. We can sit back and hope our team takes the same road the 49ers took a year ago — watching the team that beat you go on to win a Super Bowl, knowing that if you were in their position, you would have won it too (seriously, the Falcons would have beaten the Ravens in two weeks, just as the 49ers will), and hope we’ll be playing in the Big Game in 12 months.
But before that becomes possible, there are a few massive leaks in the Falcons’ pipes that will need to be repaired.
First and foremost, the defense needs a boost. Assuming they re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes (who missed the entire season with an achilles tendon injury), the secondary will be better than ever. The linebackers held their own for the most part in 2012 (I said “for the most part” because their defense of tight ends in the postseason left a lot to be desired), but the defensive line was extremely soft when they needed to pressure quarterbacks the most — specifically, in the two playoff games, when quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick had all day to throw the ball. Pass rushers are crucial in a league where passing has become the best route of efficiency for an offense, and it’s the only way to make guys like Drew Brees feel uncomfortable in the pocket.
Atlanta will also need to go out and find a tight end, if we’re supposed to believe Tony Gonzalez will really retire. But understand this: if anything would make a perfectly-healthy All-Pro come back for another season, it would be falling 10 measly yards shy of a Super Bowl appearance. Considering it wasn’t a Chipper Jones-style retirement, who spent his final season on a farewell tour, I think Gonzalez will get the itch to return to training camp in June or July. And he has already said he would be a Falcon if he decided to play another year, so that’s a positive for Atlanta.
One more thing — head coach Mike Smith needs to spend a month or two learning from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, because when next season begins, he needs to stop giving a you-know-what about other teams’ feelings. Seeing our offense take its foot off the gas pedal in the postseason is maddening for fans, and it can’t be pleasant for the players, either. If Smith and the Falcons can score 60 points in a game, they should do it. It’s the NFL, and they pay those other guys to stop you. Don’t help them out by getting cute, especially when there’s a Super Bowl on the line.
On a personal note, Sunday was brutal. However, it wasn’t as brutal as a loss to Seattle would have been a week ago. I know I should have held this team to a higher standard, but I felt like we were extremely lucky to still be in the postseason, and any wins beyond last Sunday would just be a bonus. I fully understood the 49ers are the best team in football, so I was prepared for whatever would come Sunday.
I didn’t think about how I would feel if we came within 10 yards of a Super Bowl, though.
I guess you just can’t be expected to think about torture.