It has been seven months since the Falcons made Super Bowl history of the decidedly wrong kind, turning a 28-3 lead in the third quarter into a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. There was plenty of perseverance demonstrated by the Patriots, enabling them to bask in the confetti-covered glory of securing their fifth Lombardi Trophy with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback. But the Falcons certainly did their part, as their offense abandoned the running game at inopportune moments and their young defense became suddenly unable to do anything to slow down Brady and the Patriots.
None of that was at the forefront of the Falcons’ thoughts when they opened Mercedes-Benz Stadium in their third game of this year’s preseason. They played poorly that night. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the reigning league MVP, threw an interception on their first offensive play. The Falcons sputtered on offense en route to losing to the Arizona Cardinals. But it nevertheless was a new beginning, an evening that ostensibly represented a clean break from all that had come before.
“Cool night, very special for this organization,” Ryan said after that game. “Fun to be in it. Wish we could have played a little bit better. But hopefully we’ll take care of that during the regular season.”
It won’t necessarily be easy. And it starts with clearing a mental hurdle.
During the offseason, Coach Dan Quinn did not hide from the ignominy of being on the losing side of the greatest Super Bowl comeback.
“I think you have to acknowledge,” Quinn said in March at the annual league meeting in Phoenix. “You have to own the moments that went bad. But you also have to own the ones that went well, too. That’s what I intend to do.”
Quinn spoke then of the Falcons needing to “reset” for the offseason and beyond.
“It hurts,” he said. “The first little bit after the game [was] way more counseling than coaching. We had tears but no finger-pointing because of how tight our team is. And then, man, you’re like: You go back and you battle for it again. You go through that process and then you’ve got to turn. This is 2017. … Every year the team is different.”
Ryan seeks to provide a suitable encore to his league-MVP season without the help of Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. Shanahan left for the San Francisco 49ers’ head coaching job and was replaced by Steve Sarkisian. Say what you want about Shanahan’s play-calling during the late Super Bowl meltdown. He still worked wonders with Ryan and the offense last season.
Ryan remains surrounded by a strong on-field supporting cast led by wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, and he expresses confidence that the offense will be fine.
“Tonight wasn’t great,” Ryan said after the ugly showing in the third preseason game. “But we’ve had a productive training camp, and I feel like we’ve gotten really good work in. It didn’t show up for us early on. But we’ll be ready to go.”
The offense did the heavy lifting last season while the youthful defense found its way. The Falcons ranked 25th in the league in total defense and 27th in scoring defense. The focus heading into this season, players say, is to be an opportunistic group that forces opponents into turnovers.
“Whatever it takes to get the ball out and get it into our offense’s hands, we’ve got to do,” second-year linebacker Deion Jones said. “It’s been emphasized. … That’s pretty much how we practice, all taking shots at the ball, training ourselves to go after the ball and training our offense to hold on to the ball.”
Jones said he has liked what he has seen in that regard.
“We have a lot of guys flying around, playing fast and being physical,” Jones said. “I love it. There’s a whole different energy. Guys are a little bit older now and kind of know what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re learning on the run this year, like last year. That’s been good this year.”
Said defensive lineman Jack Crawford: “If one person makes a play, we feel like we all made a play. And that’s kind of how it has to work on defense. Otherwise you’re not going to be successful.”
Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss always is difficult. It will be particularly difficult for the Falcons, given the nature of their defeat, to avoid having a second straight season ruined by what the Patriots did down the stretch on that February night in Houston.
“You’re not over it,” Quinn said in the offseason. “But you’re past it. But it’s okay to let it fuel you about where you can go.”