"The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It's deadly and has a great sporting tradition." - Julia Elliot
Forty-four years ago, a school teacher named Julia Elliot won the contest to name the then-new Atlanta NFL franchise. Forty-four years later, her words are finally being lived up to by the team she named. Though she passed away in 1990, I'm sure she's looking down on the 2010 Atlanta Falcons and smiling. Julia's team, inconsistent and unable to win those close, slugfest games for so many years, is now filled with the courage and fight she so lovingly envisioned.
You could trace this newfound tenacity back to the 2008 Chicago game, where Matt Ryan's last-second heroics lifted the hearts of those fans that had bothered to stay behind after the Falcons had seemingly let another win slip away. This was our first glimpse of the new, improved, living-up- to-their-name Falcons. The second glimpse was during last year's last game, where a team already knocked out of the playoff race, playing an opponent that wanted a good end to their season, pulled off a win and broke a long standing and heavy curse. That, fans, was just the beginning.
When the Falcons stepped onto Heinz Field to open the season, I am certain they were both confident and worried. Starting a new season away from home, especially in such hostile territory against a team known for its staunch defense, is never easy. At the time, Matt Ryan was 7-10 starting on the road, and fans' worries were vindicated with the game's outcome. The supposedly prolific offense the team had built was anemic against the suffocating Steeler defense. The defense, however, held its own against the depleted Steeler offense and kept the game close until, during the overtime period, Mendenhall found a chink in the Falcons' defense's armor and put the nail in the coffin. It was a heartbreaking way to lose the first game of the season and a wave of woe spread out amongst the Falcons faithful. Here they were, the same team we had seen year in, year out, always losing close games.
It was not, however, the same ol' Falcons team. The Steeler defense is, as it has been many times before, a juggernaut. The Falcons held their own and fought hard in what was a stalemate for over sixty minutes of field play. The first missed assignment was also the last. These things happen. This is football, after all. Still, as I surveyed the depressed Dirty Bird denizens left in the wake of the loss, I felt an overwhelming sense of stubbornness. It seemed to rub off on every one. It was needed. The reigning Super Bowl champs were up next on the schedule. Before that, however, some unfinished business had to be attended to.
I can still remember the dip my heart took when I listened to the radio call for 2008's surprising wild-card appearance by our young Falcons team. That dip hurt, especially when I reflected on the fact that the Falcons had almost beaten the NFC's eventual Super Bowl representative. The what-if's floating around in my head wouldn't let me forgive Keith Brooking for his mistake, nor would it let me forget the Cardinals. The birds from the desert needed a lesson taught to them.
They got it in spades. I couldn't really tell if the Falcons were that good or if the Cardinals were that bad but the game ended up resembling more a scrimmage than a true NFL season game. Like the 49ers game last year and the Raiders game in 2008, this was the Falcons' obligatory yearly beatdown. The thrashing thankfully came against an opponent on my hit list. It was a great home opener.
Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was some of that VooDooHooDo backfiring on the Saints. Whatever it was, it lost Garrett Hartley his job. For the first time since 2002, the Falcons were triumphant in New Orleans. I only remember jumping up, throwing up the "It's Good!" gesture, and scraping the popcorn off my old apartment's ceiling. It was one of those moments that'll last forever in Falcons lore. There was nary a moment that was unexciting. Regardless of the Saints' position as reigning champions and their ability to score and get all the breaks, the Falcons never gave up. Matt Bryant's winning field goal helped lift this franchise and its fans even further. Who Dat? We Dat. Bring on December 27th.
Most often than not, when a team takes a lightning-quick two score lead, the end result is not desirable by the fans of its opponent. Not this past Sunday, however. As flukish as the blocked punt TD was, our Falcons never once blinked an eye. They simply came out swinging the very next possession and scored. It was what was needed and they got the job done. The defense stepped up to the plate and said "No longer shall any gold diggers score!" and lo, such was the Truth. Their will to win never left. Just rewatch Roddy stripping the interception from Nate Clements' hands. His gait was determined and the look on his face was scolding, as if saying "No you don't!" Their courage never wavered and the fight never left them, even after trailing the desperate 0-3 Niners for fifty nine minutes and fifty eight seconds. This is the Falcons squad Julia Elliot envisioned when she named our team.
While many of you have expressed how bad your blood pressure is now after enduring two straight weeks of last-second Falcons wins, I have to stress that they are still wins; glorious, highly sought after wins at that. The next quarter of the season brings four tough opponents. Do not underestimate Cleveland. Their running game is decent and they've got Delhomme, an old division foe, as their signal caller. We must be wary of his Cajun ways. On my birthday, the Falcons face our nemesis, the Eagles. I don't believe I need to tell you why I want the Falcons to crush those Philly Cheesesteak eatin' pigeons. The Bengals are also not a team to sneeze at, even if Matt Ryan is eleventy billion to one in the Dome. And then there's Tampa. You honestly never know what Bucs team will show up.
There have been words bandied about in relation to the Falcons by the talking heads out there. One word stands out: lucky. I also heard the phrase "worst three and one team in the NFL." I have better words for you: pluck, grit, determination, stubbornness, drive, courage, fight, rising, up. The Falcons are making their mark. Pity those who stand in our way.