What’s astonishing, when we look back, is how much more successful the Falcons have been over the last 20 years than they were over the first 30 seasons in the NFL. Fans who stuck with this team from 1966-1997 were rewarded with exactly zero Conference Championship appearances, despite a handful of great seasons mixed in. Those of us who grew up watching this team in the 90’s and 2000’s will now have seen four, including a Super Bowl berth. Comparatively speaking, it’s a great time to be a Falcons fan.
The question is whether this Falcons team, with one of the best offenses ever and a defense that has suddenly been coming up with all the plays it needs, can join the 1998 squad in making it all the way to the Super Bowl, or if they’ll join the 2004 and 2012 teams in falling just short. This has been an insanely, unexpectedly successful season either way, but we want a championship so badly we can taste it. The only thing in the way is the Green Bay Packers, and as we’ll look at later in the week, this isn’t the first time Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers have stood in the way of Atlanta’s playoff hopes and dreams.
Here’s a brief look at the team’s history in Conference Championship games.
2012: San Francisco 49ers, Loss
This was a huge game. The Falcons had been building toward this during the Mike Smith era, losing in the Wild Card round in 2008 and 2011, the Divisional Round in 2010, and finally dispatching the Seahawks in 2012 to get here.
You might have elected to block this game out of your memory, which is understandable, but it started off very promisingly. The Falcons were up 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-14 at halftime, thanks to two touchdown grabs from Julio Jones, one from Tony Gonzalez, and a 35 yard field goal from Matt Bryant. Unfortunately, the 49ers’ defense clamped down in a major way in the second half, the Falcons blew a handful of opportunities (nobody’s going to forget Harry Douglas stumbling), and they wound up losing 28-24. The 49ers would go on to lose in the Super Bowl against a mysteriously elite Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
This is still one of the most bitterly disappointing losses of my life as a Falcons fan, which makes the 49ers’ current dumpster fire mien pleasing. Unless they hire Kyle Shanahan, that is.
2004: Philadelphia Eagles, Loss
This was the deepest playoff run of the Mike Vick era in Atlanta. The week before, Vick and the team had been sensational against the Rams, beating them by a 47-17 score that was pretty reflective of how the game went. Even against a rough Eagles defense, this figured to be a potentially high-scoring affair, given how productive the Falcons offense could be when they were on.
Unfortunately, the Eagles were one of the toughest teams in football in these days, and so it was with this one. Philadelphia only led by four at halftime, but like San Francisco years later, they didn’t allow a single second half point as they cruised to a 27-10 victory. Vick had one of his quietest games of the year (or any other year) against a relentless Eagles defense, the defense just couldn’t corral Brian Westbrook, and so it went.
1998: Minnesota Vikings, Win
This is still, bar none, the greatest game in the franchise’s history. Atlanta came into this one as an obvious underdog against the Minnesota Vikings, a 15-1 juggernaut. They walked out as a Super Bowl team.
The Falcons struck first with a Jamal Anderson touchdown, but they trailed until very late in the game, when they managed to tie things up and force overtime. They did so on the back of a pretty stingy defensive effort, all things considered, and one of the finest games of Chris Chandler’s career. In overtime, they managed to pull off the win on Morten Andersen’s 38 yard field goal, marking the first and only time this franchise managed to go to the biggest game of all.