As a longtime Falcons fan, the past 3 years have been one of the most amazing stretches. Growing up, it always seemed like the Falcons were the team that would find a way to lose. Even with some incredibly talented teams - and pro-bowl players - the franchise seemed destined to spend their time at the bottom of the NFC West.
However, when Arthur Blank bought the franchise from the Smiths, there was a sense of hope. The Vick years were a ton of fun and I remember arguing that Vick would win a Super Bowl with this team. Oh, how wrong I was.
I still remember the sense of dread that accompanied that 2007 season. It was like watching a loved one get ill - you couldn't leave, but it was incredibly painful to watch. When Blank brought on Thomas Dimitroff and the unknown Mike Smith at the end of 2007 - I didn't know what to think. When they drafted Matt Ryan, I figured we were in for several lean seasons. In fact, I remember one analyst predicting that the Falcons would finish 1-15 in 2008.
But we all know what happened. An 11-5 record and some amazing victories later, and the "doomed" Falcons made the playoffs with the soon-to-be rookie of the year Matt Ryan at quarterback. In the subsequent years, the Falcons have had some memorable moments. This list below is just scratching the surface, but they do stand out as some of the best moments for me in this new era.5. Falcons vs. Jets (December 20th, 2009) - At 6-7, the Falcons had already been eliminated from playoff contention. Michael Turner spent nearly half the year injured, and Matt Ryan had missed two games due to turf-toe (a much more painful injury than the name would suggest). Traveling up to a bitterly cold Meadowlands, the Falcons had very little to play for. Their season was pretty much over. No one would blame the Falcons for cashing in the remainder of the season. But this game was about so much more. These Falcons don't fold - and with a winning record still possible, they found something to play for. This game was ugly. Both teams struggled and Ryan's stats were pedestrian at best. But as usual, down 7 to 3 with over 2 minutes left in the game - a banged up Matt Ryan did what he does best - he drove his team down the field against a phenomenal Jets defense. And with just under 1:40 left on the clock, on a fourth and goal, Ryan hits Gonzalez in the end-zone for the game winning touchdown. This 10-7 win would put Ryan and the Falcons back on a winning streak and at 7-7. As we all know, the team would finish with two more victories to give this franchise it's first back-to-back winning seasons. Amazingly, even with that accomplishment, you sensed that the Falcons wanted - and expected - more. And in this game, a new, high-standard emerged for this team and all of its players.
4. Falcons vs. Saints (September 26th, 2010) - The third game of the season - and against a hated rival - this was a moment where the Falcons needed to show that they had arrived. The week before, the Falcons thrashed a Warner-less Arizona team. Prior to that, we lost a sloppy game to a Roethlisberger-less Steelers team. Playing against the defending Super-Bowl champs in their house, both the offense and defense showed that they could deliver. Ryan was solid, Turner broke 100 yards, Gonzalez pulled in over 100 and our defense forced several key turnovers in a back and forth game that kept you on your feet for all 60 minutes plus overtime. Though Saints fans will remind you that Hartley missed a field goal in OT, this Falcons fan will remind you that we won. In the Dome. Against the defending champs. And our kicker managed to hit a 46 yarder. A key game in the season, this win bolstered the confidence of the entire team and sent them on a charge that would end with a 13-3 record, a first round bye, and a feeling that no game would ever be out of reach.
3. Falcons vs. Bears (October 12th, 2008) - I still remember the sheer energy in the GA Dome that night. There was a real sense of hope with this team coming in, but then the Bears came to town. This was one of those franchises that had our number for years and as Chicago went up 20 to 19 with 11 seconds left in the game, everyone had closed the book on this one. Even though Ryan had his best passing game as a rookie, surely this game was out of reach. Or so you would think. Squib kick to Harry Douglas. 6 seconds left. Ryan hits Jenkins for more than a 20 yard gain on an out route while getting nailed in the pocket. 1 second on the clock. Elam steps up and nails the field goal with no time left and Atlanta wins 22 to 19. More importantly, Ryan established a new persona in the Falcons identity. This is a team that will never give up - no matter what the odds look like. And he - even as a rookie - would lead them. Falcons go 4-2 by winning this game, and Ryan becomes the first rookie QB in 10 years to start his first 6 games with a winning record.
2. Falcons vs. Ravens (November 11th, 2010) - Arguably one of the best games Ryan has ever played, this game was a showcase for the franchise QB. Operating out of the no-huddle for much of the game, Ryan amassed over 300 yards, 2 TDs (soon to be 3) and no interceptions. He also completed 64% of his throws on 50 attempts. But, the Ravens were not going to be denied. Though we had harassed their offense all day, they owned our defense in the fourth quarter. And with a little over a minute left in the game, the Ravens took the lead - 21 to 20. As I watched them score, I remember thinking very clearly: They left too much time for Matt Ryan. Boy, how right that was. With a little over a minute left in the game, Ryan marched the Falcons 80 yards down the field with the maturity of a 15 year veteran. And with a little over 20 seconds left, he hits Roddy White for the game winning touchdown - Falcons would win 26 to 21. This would end up being the 11th game winning drive of Ryan's still very young career. For those who watched the game, and those in attendance - this was the loudest the GA Dome had ever been.
1. Falcons vs. Lions (September 7th, 2008) - It's hard not to pick this game, as this is where it all started. A brand new coach, a new running back and a starting rookie QB. It all was supposed to be a disaster - and then it happened. On his first pro pass, Matt Ryan hits Michael Jenkins for a 62 yard touchdown - and a new era was born. Everyone remembers that pass, but the stat often overlooked was the fact that Michael Turner ran for 220 yards in that game (breaking a Falcons single game record) and helped establish the Falcons as a team that could not be overlooked. As would happen for the next 3 years, the Falcons won by dominating the line of scrimmage - playing smart - and fielding solid leadership from the general manager down to our new field general. This game truly was the birth of a new era in Falcon football.
As we march into this fourth year under the new Falcons leadership, I can say with full confidence that I believe in this team. These 5 games are the bedrock on which that trust has been built. Here's to a fantastic 2011 season!