After 18 years of waiting, Atlanta finally gets its moment

AP Photo/John Amis

It didn’t take long for word to spread around Philips Arena Saturday night that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had become the first member of the franchise to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Minutes after the honor was bestowed on the Falcons’ signal-caller, an “M-V-P” chant broke out as the Atlanta Hawks closed out a 113-86 win over the Orlando Magic that was equal parts beautiful and easy.

The last two weeks in Atlanta have been just that: beautiful and easy. It’s strange, too, because you’d think a city that has gone nearly 18 years between championship appearances for the Braves, Hawks or Falcons would be a little more uptight about winning this one.

Yeah, we’re pretty laid-back this week.

(Also read: Why we probably won’t have to wait long for a Falcons-Patriots rematch)

In 1999, as the Falcons prepared for Super Bowl XXXIII, the city was excited about the big game, but there was also a sense that our team was just lucky to be there. The Falcons had somehow escaped the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game, and all of a sudden, we were in the Super Bowl for the first time ever. The Falcons were manhandled in Miami by the Denver Broncos, looking every bit like the first-timers who were just happy to be there.

In 2005, the Falcons would return to the NFC Championship game, but the outcome would be different. Atlanta was defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had played in four consecutive NFC Championship games but failed the first three times.

As the Falcons fell 27-10, there was a general belief around the football world that this team would get plenty of chances to win it all, but young quarterback Michael Vick wasn’t quite ready just yet. This was Philadelphia’s time, but Atlanta wouldn’t have to wait much longer to get its shot, experts said.

It would be 12 more years before that finally came true.

If there’s one explanation for why a snakebitten sports town could be so laid-back entering a Super Bowl against the Evil Empire, it’s this: the Falcons are really good. You don’t roll through one of the league’s best defenses (Seattle) and the hottest team in the playoffs (Green Bay) back-to-back by an average of nearly 20 points per game if you’re not really good.

Even when the Falcons lost, it wasn’t convincing. Atlanta’s five losses this season were by a combined 22 points; for comparison, New England’s two losses were by a combined 23.

For all the jokes directed Atlanta’s way, this city sure hasn’t behaved like a #BadSportsTown these last two weeks. Everyone – sans a few New Englanders – is on board with this Super Bowl run, and the secret is out about Atlanta. For a city that hasn’t appeared in a major professional sport’s championship game or series this millennium, Atlantans have appreciated the fortnight leading up to the Super Bowl like no other.

Dare I say it has actually been fun to be a fan of Atlanta sports.

But with the laid-back atmosphere comes a much different tone: the Falcons need to win this game. Gone is the “happy to be here” attitude of 1999, replaced by a must-win mentality from the fan base this time around. We know what we’re up against – the greatest quarterback-coach combo of all-time – but we still need to get the W. Anything less than a parade on Peachtree Street is a failure.

It remains to be seen if the passion of the past two weeks can be sustained long-term, but this “bad sports town” has embraced the Falcons since owner Arthur Blank purchased the team because the franchise has displayed a willingness to win. Atlanta quickly became a Falcons town in the early 2000s, with fans rushing home from Saturdays in Tuscaloosa or Athens or Knoxville or Tallahassee to be in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. I saw what this franchise was before Blank took over, and there’s no doubt things have changed.

Now, there’s just one demon left to exorcise. If Blank is dancing on that stage again Sunday night, there will be nothing left to prove. Atlanta will finally be a champion again.

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