Here's my favorite, most representative story of what it's like to be a fan of Atlanta and Georgia sports teams. On Oct. 28, 1995, the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians 1-0 in Game 5 of the World Series to win the city's first ever championship in any of the four major North American professional sports. The Braves celebrated on the field. They were very happy. Look, they really were.
As Braves fans exited Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, they had another topic on their minds. That same night, for the first time ever, the beloved Georgia Bulldogs were hosting their hated rival Florida Gators at Sanford Stadium in Athens, an hour north. The World's Largest Cocktail Party is annually played in Jacksonville, but that year, because of renovations to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, they played it in Athens. This wonderful sports night, this championship, would be capped off perfectly by a Georgia win over Steve Spurrier and the monstrous Gators.
So what did fans learn upon leaving the stadium? (Sorry, there were no smartphones to update them inside the stadium.) They learned that the Gators had crushed the Bulldogs 52-17, running up the score late because Spurrier said he wanted to hang "half a hundred" on Georgia, because no one had ever done that before. It is considered one of the lowest moments, if not the lowest moment, in Georgia football history.
This is Atlanta, and Georgia, sports fan history. You finally win a championship, the only one they've ever won, and it is followed, immediately, by the most embarrassing, crushing loss imaginable suffered by the team that, deep down, everybody cares about more than any other. And of course, the one year you win that World Series -- with a team that won its division an unprecedented number of years -- is the year after the devastating 1994 strike, the season most fans were either ignoring all together or outwardly furious during. The year the fewest people were watching and the most people were angry about … that's the year you win your one title. And you can't even be happy about that, because of Steve Spurrier.
That's life as an Atlanta sports fan. I didn't understand the fatalism of Atlanta sports fans, the sense that they are somehow cursed, that the world of sports is somehow out to get them, until I moved to Athens three years ago, but it is in the air like smog. Any success, any good news, an exciting Hawks team, a new MLS team, a new UGA coach, brand new stadiums all over the place, it's all tempered with a sense of impending doom. Fans in Georgia just know it's not going to work out, even when it's working out. And they're consistently proven correct.
The Braves won 14 (14!) consecutive division titles and only got that one, largely ignored World Series. The Hawks have been consistent winners for the nearly 50 years they've been in Atlanta but have never even reached the NBA Finals. Georgia is one of the most storied college football programs on the planet, but they haven't won a title since 1980 while watching every single one of their hated rivals (Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, Tennessee, LSU, even stupid Georgia Tech) has won one.
And then there are the Falcons. Since drafting Matt Ryan, the Falcons have been one of the more stable, victorious teams in the NFL, with only two losing seasons in that span. They've made the playoffs four times. They've reached the NFC Championship game. And even before Ryan got there, they've had some excellent teams, from the peak of Red Gun/Deion Sanders/Jerry Glanville teams to the 1998 Super Bowl team to the Michael Vick era to the Ryan run of success. The Falcons are rarely terrible, usually quite good and always worth watching.
But they are an Atlanta team -- which means come playoff time, they collapse. Ryan, who is probably about to become the first Falcon ever to win the MVP, is famously 1-4 in the playoffs. That one Super Bowl team isn't even thought of that positively because of the Eugene Robinson fiasco the night before the game. The Falcons have been one of the best five teams in the NFL this season, but most of the league has failed to notice, because few take the Falcons seriously, because the Falcons have never truly broken through. The success of the Falcons has been seen through the filter of the rest of the league's failures: Cam Newton and the Panthers fell apart, the Buccaneers aren't ready yet, the NFC West was lousy, so on, so on, someone had to win some games, might as well be the Falcons. We have talked more about the Cowboys, and the Packers, and the Giants, and the Seahawks, and the Panthers, and even the freaking Cardinals, than we have the Falcons this year. The Falcons are the team you don't notice and pay little attention to. Why would you? We all know how this story always ends.
But that can all change this Saturday. Ryan and the Falcons are hosting the Seattle Seahawks, with Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman and that Super Bowl title, with a chance to go to their second NFC Championship game in the past five years. This has been Ryan's most incredible season, one in which he has matched Aaron Rodgers pass for pass despite a lack of actress girlfriends and high-profile commercials.
(Matt Ryan's commercials are much, much more dopey.)
In fact, it's entirely possible that the Falcons, if they can win on Saturday, could host the NFC Championship game, considering how well Rodgers has been playing. (Atlanta would host Green Bay, but travel to Dallas.) This is the last season for the Georgia Dome, and perhaps the best Falcons team to play in it has a chance to send it off with a playoff victory, or maybe even two of them. According to Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System, a quick-and-dirty way of comparing teams' performances, the Falcons have been the best team in the NFC this year and the second-best in the NFL, behind the Patriots. They have their franchise quarterback playing his best ever. They have an improving defense. They have lightning-quick running backs capable of a big play at any moment. They have Julio Jones. And they have a Seahawks team that has struggled all season and looks incapable of keeping up with the Falcons' offense.
In other words, the Falcons have everything going for them. Saturday can be when they take their first major step forward since that 2012 NFC Championship game, the most recent playoff game at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons led the 49ers 24-14 at halftime of that game, and 24-21 heading into the fourth quarter. It looked like the Falcons were headed to their second Super Bowl. And then, again, it fell apart.
Atlanta fans are used to that by now. The Falcons can break that Saturday, can make the whole league give them attention that they've denied them all year. It's a winnable game. It all looks set up. But forgive Atlanta fans for continuing to watch through sweaty fingers. Forgive them for not quite being able to believe. They've been through this before. The Falcons can change all that. But so could the Braves, and the Bulldogs, and the Hawks. None of them did. Atlanta fans will cheer and hope, but they will also believe it when they see it.