Pay no attention to the fourth-quarter garbage points. In their first playoff game this season, the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Seahawks. Atlanta was even more dominant the following week against the Green Bay Packers, taking a 31-0 lead before showing mercy.
You’d think a team on that kind of roll would be favored to win the Super Bowl, and win it by a comfortable margin. But the Las Vegas line opened with the Falcons giving three points to the New England Patriots, and it hasn’t budged because the Patriots are, well, the Patriots, whose Hall of Fame-bound quarterback processes information obtained from a Hall of Fame-bound head coach.
The Falcons? They’re seen as Super Sunday neophytes vulnerable to the glare of the world’s most hyped single-day sporting event. You might recall how some put a similar tag on the Seahawks before they faced the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 48: too young for the moment, unlike Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a Super Bowl veteran who three years ago was regarded as an ageless wonder.
Denver’s first offensive snap sailed over Manning’s head for a safety, and the new kids went on to pummel Manning so ruthlessly, he changed his famous audible call behind center from “Omaha!” to “Uncle!”
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These Falcons share much in common with the those Seahawks, beginning with the fact that Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn served as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator in 2013. But the connection is deeper than Quinn’s determination to emulate Carroll’s way of accentuating the positive with upbeat practices, quirky slogans and that ever-important basketball hoop in the team meeting room
The camaraderie between Quinn and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is as healthy as that between Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider. It’s a same-page approach that entails every aspect of roster construction.
The Falcons’ most recent drafts have found them upgrading their defense with fast, physical guys who wasted no time stepping up and contributing — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? — and though Atlanta will rely on its explosively versatile offense to outscore New England, I won’t be surprised if Tom Brady faces the same pass-rush pressure that besieged Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship.
As for the notion of the Falcons being susceptible to stage fright, their general manager reasonably rebuffed it the other day.
“The idea of it being too big of a stage, that’s overrated,” Dimitroff said in a taped interview with The Sporting News. “I think if you’re trained right, if the coaches train your players right, if they believe in the right way, they should be prepared.
“It’s a football game at the core. There’s going to be, what, 800 million people watching? Yes, it’s a big stage. People will say ‘This is a young group. How are they going to deal with this?’ Because they’ve never been here, and there are 38 players on the other team that have been, and we have only two or three.”
Concluded Dimitroff: “There’s an overrated element to that if the players are schooled right, coached right and identified right.”
The Falcons are 3 for 3 on that score, and given the youth of the team’s defense, I suspect Quinn’s debut Super Bowl as Atlanta’s head coach won’t be his last.
In other words, a power struggle awaits atop the NFC. After their back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Seahawks were supposed to be a force capable of sustaining an eight-to-10 year run as conference kingpins.
The Hawks still are a force — five consecutive advancements to the second playoff round fulfills any definition of “force” — but the emotional energy they once brought to the field for 16 regular-season games, week after week, was not always apparent in 2016.
Some of the victories were perceived as stale, and some of the defeats were perceived as four quarters of shoulder-shrugging whatever: We’ll regroup. We’ll refocus. We’re the Seahawks.
Thanks to the electricity of CenturyLink Field, their lovely lakeside headquarters and an owner worth more than the gross national product of 79 countries, the Hawks assume supremacy. The Falcons are asserting it.
Once regarded as the ideal landing spot for free agents, Seattle may have ceded that distinction to Atlanta. The Falcons will move next season into a gaudy stadium that will make Jerry Jones’ Dallas palace seem understated. Their training headquarters are first class.
No views of snow-capped mountains are to be had in metropolitan Atlanta. Although a river runs through it and there are dozens of creeks, Atlanta’s geography to Seattle’s is what Milli Vanilli’s music was to the Beatles.
But the autumn weather in Atlanta is generally pleasant. Windbreakers for when the sun goes down, that’s it. Umbrellas aren’t a backpack staple.
While the climate strikes me as a minor factor in any free agent’s decision to sign a contract — it’s almost all about the money — an agreeable climate trumps views of snow-capped mountains.
Atlanta has transformed itself into a “destination franchise,” and when the Falcons score early and often Sunday, the destination franchise label will be reinforced.
“Gun to your head,” the question goes, “what’s the final score?”
Falcons 38, Patriots 24, but what’s with the gun-to-head threat?
It’s only a game. Hundreds of millions will watch on TV — the halftime show might last longer than the keynote speech at a political convention — but it’s only a game, and the Falcons grasp that.
They’ll show up and take care of business, the way Seahawks once did.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath