If you’re at all familiar with narrative tropes, surely you’ve heard of the “Darker Me” persona.
Think Emo Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 3, or Evil Troy and Evil Abed on Community, or Hey Arnold! supporting dweeb Eugene in the leather jacket pulling the fire alarm (Google it — you’ll get a good, nostalgic laugh). Or, maybe the Christopher Nolan-ification of superhero movies in a post-Dark Knight media landscape (coming this summer, a gritty reboot of Freakazoid!).
Dan Quinn’s 2017 Atlanta Falcons are officially the edgy reboot of the 2016 squad – only this time, it’s far-more Batman, far less brooding Peter Parker.
The Sunday night beatdown of a nicked-up Packers team was uncharacteristic for what we’ve come to expect of the Falcons historically when the bigger dogs come to town, though, we should have seen it coming.
Last season, the team had only three legitimate non-Thursday primetime bouts, but they made the most out of all of them – the Falcons stunned the Monday Night Darling Drew Brees on his own field, silenced the chirping Seahawks stans in the NFC divisional round and doused the flaming-hot Aaron Rodgers and his fellow cheese-heads in the NFC Championship.
The narrative outside of Flowery Branch, however, never seems to be on the team’s side when the big cameras come to town:
ANNOUNCER A: “Brees is the primetime king, surely he’ll dispose of the collapse-prone Birds. Yeah, remember that? The 5-0 collapse of 2015. That was a thing. The Falcons aren’t legit. … Oh, shoot, they just nearly hung a 50-burger on the New Orleans defense?”
ANNOUNCER B: “Ah, well, the Falcons have had a great year, but Russell Wilson. And that Seattle run game. And that defense! Seahawks by 10. … Hold up, they did what to the Seattle D?”
ANNOUNCER C: “Rodgers can’t be stopped right now. Did you see that pass to Jared Cook? Schoolyard brilliance – like he drew it up in the sand! The Pack are back, baby. Wait, who are they playing? Oh, Atlanta, well that won’t really be that close I don’t think. … Oh wow, uhm, so about Atlanta.”
Again, the national pundits have their own playbook – you know where the Falcons historically stand in it. It’s ultimately irrelevant where Johnny B. Hot Take and Sammy G. Obtuse Opinion come down on where the Birds are. It didn’t stop them from getting to the Super Bowl last year, and all the 28-3 jokes, graphics and soliloquies sure as sand didn’t stop the Falcons from further punishing the short-handed Packers on national television Sunday night.
We’ve talked about the Falcons being determined this year to rid themselves of the lurking shadow of 28-3. It’s the grey pall over the future, the nightmare you can’t run from, the scar on your forehead that burns every time “Score That Will Inevitably Be Brought Up” enters the fray.
Well, have we talked much about them being angry?
Quinn and company have brought up countless times how they plan to use the Super Bowl loss as fuel to their 2017 fire – and Sunday night, the flame was set ablaze all over the league’s green-tinted golden boys.
Sure, the Pack was missing a few key players, but they weren’t missing Aaron Rodgers. As long as 12 is on the field, the Packers are as dangerous as a brood of hungry vipers. But, the Falcons have gotten the best of Rodgers three times in the last calendar year, and the last two encounters, they’ve bullied Rodgers and his lactose-loving teammates into submission.
Steve Sarkisian’s offense, once believed like less than a week ago to be the beginning of the end to Atlanta’s offensive greatness by the hottest take-y among us, blasted the Packers’ defense. Put-upon RG Wes Schweitzer made strides in his second start. Matt Ryan put his icy reputation to work as he chillingly sliced up the Packers secondary, with more focus and precision than we’re used to seeing from the reigning MVP (with the help of the alien-monster-man Julio Jones and the consistently-improving Mohamed Sanu). The run game everyone was freaking out about? RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman chewed up the clock, the new turf and the Packers linebackers with a dually-splendid performance.
The defense kept Rodgers on skates for most of the nights, though in fairness to A-a-ron, he was without starting tackles David Bahktiari and Bryan Bulaga. With the way the Falcons’ pass rushers were ripping at the seam to greet the Pack’s QB with a big bear hug body slam to the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf, though, it’s fair to ask if the rocks of Stonehenge could have stopped them.
These Falcons are high-flying, fun and fancy free with each other, but they are merciless against their opponent. Run and hit is a good manta for a locker room, but it’s poor business if you’re trying to make a friend with a guy in the opposite uniform. The 2017 Falcons aren’t out to make friends after all – they’re out to collect heads.
That’s the thing about the Falcons that has been forged into their Quinn-era DNA – they’re mean. Like Seattle, they’re known for their speedy thumping on defense and like New England, they’re infamous for their relentless point-pouring on offense. They’re not going to stop for anyone – no wonder their new slogan is “all gas, no brakes.”
Well, they did stop, in a way, in the potentially franchise-scarring Super Bowl loss. We have to go back to it. We always have to go back to it. It’s the story of the season for everyone. If the Falcons’ hits seem a little harder this year, if the offense is a little more unforgiving, the coaching style just a hair less conservative, think about what’s in the back of their heads.
The Falcons have publicly “gotten past” the Super Bowl, but you can tell what drives them on every down. They’re on a revenge tour, and every opponent is an obstacle standing in their way from achieving ultimate redemption. Two games in, this team looks ready to make that march.
This is not your granddaddy’s Falcons – they’re tougher, edgier and are bent on flipping the narrative.
In short – they’re pissed off about February, and it oozes on every play.
The only thing that’s going to stop 28-3 is a won Super Bowl. If you haven’t noticed, that’s a hard thing to get. The Falcons got close, but they couldn’t close the task. They lost the game that night, but also the pen that’s writing their narrative.
As the Packers began to chunk together a couple of garbage-time points, 28-3 tried to grab the Falcons’ fate from their hands. “Hey, you remember when you blew it on national television? What if it happens again? Rodgers is good, man. This defense is tired and slowing. This thing is a ballgame.”
Whether that came from Al and Chris, your Twitter feed, the dude watching the game with you or the voice in the back of your head, you can imagine who heard it ten-times louder. And you saw who ripped those little narrative gremlins to shreds as the final minutes clicked on.
In the Broadway smash-musical Hamilton, with the Revolutionary War raging on, George Washington delivers a haunting statement to Alexander Hamilton in one of the shows’ defining numbers:
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory, you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
He assures Hamilton, “I know that we can win, I know that greatness lies in you, but remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”
Indeed, the NFL world has its eyes on the Falcons, and the team has no control over how their story is told when the talk shows come on, when your friend at work ribs you over the Super Bowl, when the announcers come to town and break down the Xs and Os.
Right now, they’re fighting tooth-and-nail to be remembered as the team who fought their way back from unfathomable depths no team has ever had to crawl their way back from.
The harder the work, the more they win, the more punishment they dole out on their opponents, the closer they’ll get to righting the wrong of 28-3, to permanently changing the story. Control won’t be needed; the results will do the job for them.
ESPN reporter Jim Trotter tweeted this after the game: “Publicly, the Falcons downplayed added significance of win. Privately, some said it was big. The burden of heightened expectations is real.”
The breaths will grow less deep after every win, and the edge will only grow sharper.
The post-28-3 Falcons are still a work in progress, but even so, they might be the best the NFC has to offer, and they’re certainly the angriest. Let’s see how far the fire can burn.
Who passes, who sacks, who rewrites their story.