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A brief history of the NFL Hall of Fame game

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The Falcons have played in the storied yet lousy exhibition thrice, and now face a familiar nemesis.

San Diego Chargers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The last time the Falcons played in the NFL’s annual Hall of Fame exhibition to kick off preseason, Andre Rison was wearing the sunglasses you see above on the sideline, Bill Clinton was President, and the Lion King broke my tiny heart. Much has changed since then, but what now connects 1994 and 2019 is that the Falcons are again going to suit up in Canton, Ohio, for a fifth preseason tilt.

Ahead of that game, which is just under a month away, I thought we’d look at the history of the game and how the Falcons have fared in it, as well as the opponent ahead. It goes without saying that you should expect some sloppy football, but at least it’s quasi-football!

Exhibition history

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game originally kicked off in 1962, before the Falcons had even officially become an NFL team. Fittingly for a game that pits two largely unready, disinterested teams against one another on a field that has never been celebrated for its excellent conditions, the first game between the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals ended in a 21-21 tie.

Almost without variance, the games played in Canton have either been close, low-scoring slugfests or lopsided blowouts, with the most dramatic examples being a 1984 38-0 Seahawks thumping of the Buccaneers and a godawful 2003 9-0 “triumph” by the Chiefs over the Packers. Given that it’s essentially an extra preseason game for two teams, it’s not surprising that you’re not seeing anyone’s best.

The Steelers and Cowboys have played in more Hall of Fame Games than anyone else in the NFL, and both of them are 3-3 in those contests. The Dolphins and Bills have the irrelevant but ignominious honor of being the two worst teams at Canton, as both have gone 0-4. Washington bizarrely owns the best record, standing at a perfect 5-0.

The only other genuinely interesting facts about the game are that it has been outright cancelled twice and called twice more. Both times it was called off partway through, it was due to severe lightning, including during the Chiefs-Packers game I mentioned above. The 2011 lockout and the 2016 horrible field conditions wound up cancelling the exhibition, which otherwise has been played every single year since 1962.

Falcons history

They’re 1-2 in the game in their history, having lost to the Packers 38-24 in what would become a 6-8 1969 season, lost again 24-10 to the Browns in what would become a 7-9 1981 season and beating the Chargers 21-17 ahead of another 7-9 season in 1994. The whole “consistently two games under .500 in a season following the Hall of Fame game” is the kind of omen that I really could’ve gone to my grave not knowing about, but we’ll hope this is the Falcons team to break the streak there.

Falcons vs. Broncos 2019

This year’s matchup will pit the Falcons against an old nemesis. The Broncos and Falcons don’t have a rich history together, but Atlanta has one stellar multi-pick game against Peyton Manning to brag about and Denver has, um, the 1998 Super Bowl victory that still hurts me so.

These teams are currently on very different tracks. The Falcons are headed for a shakeup with another bad year, but few doubt that they have the talent level to be a serious contender in the NFC this year, and they have a franchise quarterback in the best stretch of football in his entire career. The Broncos still have a strong defense and some interesting pieces on offense, but John Elway’s chronic failure to build a powerhouse on the offensive side of the ball and find a long-term answer at quarterback is fast becoming legendary, and an aging Joe Flacco is the latest to take a spin at the wheel.

This game is unlikely to tell us anything particularly useful about either team, but we’ll hope the Falcons win for funsies and that they come out if it healthy and ready for the rest of their preseason slate.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of tuning in, the game will kick off at 8 p.m. on Thursday, August 1. We’ll see you there!