When you think of teams from the NFC, a few teams invoke any sort of discernible feelings from Patriot Nation.
The Giants are probably at the top of the list. They are regionally close, many older New England football fans perhaps used to be Giant fans, and maybe still are, and they are 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls. The 49ers (the Bill Walsh versions, not the current ones) are the model Bob Kraft claims he tried to copy when he bought the Patriots in 1994. The Packers beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI and everyone around here would love to see a Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers duel in the Big Show. The Seahawks were the Super opponent two years ago. Older fans remember the thrashing Da Bears laid on the Patriots 31 Super Bowls ago.
What, if any, sort of emotion do the Atlanta Falcons bring out?
They play in a division, the NFC South, which engenders mostly apathy in these parts. Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, none of these teams are “must see” on Monday or Thursday Night Football (notice how we omitted Sunday night; these teams generally don’t wind up on NBC very often). The Falcons built a domed palace, the Georgia Dome, in 1992 and only 24 years later it’s deemed obsolete and will soon be razed in favor of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This is a place that hosted two Super Bowls, the SEC Championship Football Game annually, the Peach Bowl (which in 2016 was one of the national semifinal games) annually, and four NCAA Basketball Final Fours (three men, one women). Yet it lasted only 24 years.
Atlanta itself has a checkered sports history. Only the 1995 Braves have brought home a title to this city. The 1996 Summer Olympics are more known for an explosion and disorganization than they are for Kerri Strug and the Spectacular Seven. The Falcons lost their only other Super Bowl appearance, but that season was more about the field goal Gary Anderson missed rather than the one Morten Andersen made. The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 and won a Stanley Cup in 1989. The Hawks won one NBA title, but it was in 1958 when they were based in St. Louis. Their high water mark in Atlanta was probably a scoring duel between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins, which the Celtics naturally won.
This could be the year that the Falcons change the national perception of the city.
After watching the Falcons dismantle the Green Bay Packers, 44-21 on Sunday to capture their second NFC Championship in franchise history, Patriot Nation has to be concerned about the Atlanta offense a great deal. If Bill Belichick could come up with such a good game plan to stifle Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense, the future Hall of Fame head coach should be able to do the same with the Falcons. Given two weeks to prepare, Belichick ought to come up with something.
Still, the Falcons don’t really stir the pot around here. They don’t make your blood boil. They don’t conjure up memories of remembered battles over the years. They aren’t a team you despise.
Basically, they’re a team you don’t know. The teams don’t meet that often. Overall the Patriots are 7-6 versus the Falcons, with the last loss in 1998 when Pete Carroll was the Patriot head coach. Belichick is 4-0 against Atlanta as Patriot head coach, with three of the games in Atlanta. You simply don’t know this team. That will be temporary, of course, but for now, there isn’t much to connect these two teams.
There are two major connections between the Falcons and this area. Quarterback Matt Ryan played his collegiate ball at Boston College. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and Assistant GM Scott Pioli both previously worked for Belichick, both in Cleveland and Foxborough.
The Ryan “connection” is not as strong as one might think. BC is the highest profile college football program in the region, but that isn’t saying much. Two years ago, the Eagles had the best defense in the nation, but defensive coordinator Don Brown immediately bolted for Ann Arbor, Michigan to join Jim Harbaugh on the Michigan coaching staff. The Eagles played a game at Fenway Park against Notre Dame in 2015, but the crowd was mostly rooting for the Fighting Irish.
Basically, the sight of Ryan in a Super Bowl won’t matter to most Patriot fans. Other than Doug Flutie, the only athlete to play college football in this area and manage to attain folk hero status because of it, former Boston College football players don’t have much of a shelf life in terms of collective recollection and wistful reminiscing. This area has always been pro sports oriented. Boston is not a college town, despite being the home to some of the finest institutions of higher learning (Cambridge included).
Dimitroff and Pioli are a bit of a different story.
NFL Network ran a show recently called Cleveland ’95, part of their A Football Life series. It delved into the five years that Belichick was head coach of the original Cleveland Browns, which were the final five years they were in Cleveland. The team moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season and became the Ravens. Cleveland retained the team colors and history when the new Browns team came along in 1999. But the bloodlines of Belichick’s old team are in Baltimore. Belichick’s GM in Cleveland, Ozzie Newsome, is still the Ravens’ GM to this day, a living link to the original Browns.
During Belichick’s tenure in Cleveland, he cultivated a coaching and support staff that called themselves “slappies”. The members of this “group” include Nick Saban, Kirk Ferentz, Jim Schwartz, Eric Mangini, Phil Savage, Mike Tannenbaum, Dimitroff, Pioli, and others. Even though Cleveland made the postseason only once during those five seasons (1994), all those men who worked for Belichick praised him for all that they learned under him and how well it prepared them for the professional jobs they would eventually get.
Pioli and Dimitroff, and others, would wind up in Foxborough with Belichick. Dimitroff was the director of college scouting for the Patriots from 2003 to 2007, until he became the GM of the Falcons in 2008. The first draft pick Dimitroff made was Ryan in 2008. Pioli was in the Patriots front office from 2000 to 2008, under three different titles which basically put him in charge, or assistant, of player personnel. Pioli helped Belichick build teams which went to four Super Bowls in his nine seasons before departing for Kansas City to become the GM. He lasted four seasons in Kansas City before joining Dimitroff in Atlanta as his assistant in 2012.
Exactly how these guys can affect Super Bowl LI is a subject of debate. If nothing else, the two men can provide some insight on Brady. Only Brady, Stephen Gostkowski and Matthew Slater were drafted while Pioli was working here. That doesn’t make them experts on the Patriots of today. But they do have a connection to the Patriot Way. If there is anything these guys can offer up to head coach Dan Quinn and his players which might help the Falcons beat the Patriots in two weeks, they will do it.
Over these two weeks, you will get to know the Falcons very well. Most of you know Julio Jones, perhaps better than Ryan. You will learn about guys like Deonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Vic Beasley Jr. and Deion Jones. The Falcons also have this backup defensive tackle named Joe Vellano. Look it up, he was a Patriot two years ago when they won the whole thing.
Two weeks from now, we guarantee you that you will know the Atlanta Falcons very well. Make that very, very well.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary