After receiving your nominations, we're ready to vote for the best season in Atlanta Falcons history. Let's break down our contenders, from earliest to latest.
The Falcons were in their 15th season in 1980 and enjoyed just their fourth winning season since their 1966 inception in 1980. It was a season for the ages.
This team rode a damn fine Steve Bartkowski season (31 touchdowns vs. 16 interceptions, 3,544 yards), an eye-popping year from the legendary William Andrews (265 attempts, 1,308 yards, 51 receptions) and a predatory defense (26 picks!) to a 12-4 record. If those numbers don't impress you, remember: This was well before the modern NFL era, where stats are inflated by restrictions imposed on defenses. These Falcons were balling.
The circumstances of the team's defeat are heartbreakingly familiar. They received a first round bye and hosted the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Round, playing the brilliant brand of football they played all season in grabbing a 24-10 lead going into the fourth quarter. That's when the defense imploded, the offense slowed down and the Cowboys outscored the Falcons 20-3 in the fourth, and the team left Atlanta with a 30-27 victory. It was the first playoff gut unspooling for these Falcons, albeit not the last.
Given some of the legends on that Falcons team and the way they dismantled teams throughout the regular season, you could make a good case for this squad.
The number is enough to evoke fond memories for any Falcons fan over the age of about 20, followed by gnashing teeth and rending garments.
The Falcons got a career year out of Chris Chandler, Jamal Anderson's last, truly great season (410 carries, 1,846 yards, 14 touchdowns) and one of the three or four best defenses in franchise history, not to mention Terrance Mathis and the immortal Dan Reeves pulling rabbits of increasing size out of his coaching hat. The Falcons stormed to a franchise-best 14-2 record in the regular season and were on the right end of a thrilling, last second victory over the 15-1 juggernaut Minnesota Vikings, sealed when Gary Anderson whiffed on a field goal. That put the franchise in its first—and to-date, only—Super Bowl.
We all know what followed. The Falcons were somewhat competitive in the game, but lost to John Elway's Denver Broncos and will forever be associated with Eugene Robinson's prostitution scandal. For the average NFL fan, they're a footnote to Elway and Denver, but I'll be damned if this wasn't the finest Falcons team I ever saw.
The height of Michael Vick's powers, which is how you have to start any discussion of this season. His passing numbers were pedestrian (14 touchdowns, 2,313 yards, 12 picks), but he ran for 900 yards and was a monstrous pain in the ass for every opposing defense in the NFL.
Couple that with Warrick Dunn's 1,000 yard campaign, Alge Crumpler's status as a true weapon for Vick as well as Rod Coleman (11.5 sacks) and Patrick Kerney (13 sacks) forming one of the most intimidating pass rushing duos in the NFL and you've got yourself a party. The Falcons went 11-5 this year, earning a first round bye and utterly eviscerating an overmatched Rams team 47-17 to make it to the Conference Championship, where it appeared they would have a real shot at the franchise's second Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, Vick played a middling game, the Falcons couldn't get anything going and the defense floundered, leading to a crushing 27-10 loss. Nonetheless, this was the high-water mark of the Vick era in Atlanta, and a memorable season worth our recognition.
This one is on the list, I suspect, because of the season that came before it. Putting together a lousy 2007 season, watching Bobby Petrino bolt, seeing Michael Vick headed to jail and having universally low expectations heading into 2008 made this one seem like a miracle.
We all remember Matt Ryan putting together the best rookie quarterback season in franchise history, finding a rhythm with Roddy White and Michael Turner at the peak of his powers, carving huge holes in the middle of opposing defenses. The surprising Falcons went 11-5 and squared off against the eventually Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals in a weak field, narrowly losing thanks in part to Keith Brooking's immortally terrible coverage. This year kicked off arguably the most successful sustained run in franchise history, so it's hard not to look back at it with a happy smile on our barbecue-stained faces.
I would consider it a fine moment in the franchise's history, but not necessarily a contender for best in the team's history.
Fresh in every Falcons fan's memories, 2012 is the year that almost was.
This was the second 13-3 season in team history, and the one where the Falcons got the playoff monkey off their backs at last under Mike Smith. This was a team winning with a high-octane passing offense and guile-rich defense under Mike Nolan, reliant on smoke and mirrors, turnovers and Matt Ryan's arm to carry them to victory. Again and again, the team made it work, riding to a first round bye and edging out the Seattle Seahawks in a thrilling NFC Divisional Round victory.
That put the team in the Conference Championship for just the third time in nearly 50 years, setting the franchise up for a shot at its second Super Bowl. We all know what happened next: The team couldn't get the pass rush going against the San Francisco 49ers, a hard-earned first half lead evaporated and a series of mistakes and the collapse of all that careful planning from Mike Nolan led to the defeat by the slimmest of margins. The Falcons were, once more, heartbreakingly close.
In terms of what the Falcons were able to accomplish with a talented but deeply flawed squad, 2012 may be the single most impressive year in franchise history. It just may not be the greatest.
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