The Atlanta Falcons have had one of the more underappreciated seasons in recent memory. Most advanced metrics, including Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System, argued all season that they, not the Cowboys nor the Packers, nor the Seahawks, were the best team in the NFC, and just barely behind the Patriots for best in the NFL. And the offense, in particular, has been as fantastic as anything we've seen in the NFL in a decade. ESPN's Bill Barnwell last month made the case that the Falcons had a "sneaky-historic" offense, and that was before it essentially scored at will in the playoffs. This is something special.
But still: If you were to predict one of these teams, the Falcons or the Patriots, to make the Super Bowl next season … you'd pick the Patriots, right? You'd have to.
For all the success the Falcons have had this season, there is an undeniable sense that this might be the best shot they get. In a way, everything fell exactly right for the Falcons this year in a way that might not be replicable. Witness:
- Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has unlocked something powerful and terrifying in this offense, is about to leave the team to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
- The skill position players are all healthy and operating at their peak level at the exact same time. In the NFL, suffice it to say, it's rare to have everybody healthy and on the field at once.
- Division rival Carolina had a down year but came on late and should be closer to their Super Bowl form next season.
- The Falcons have a certain kismet now -- the feel of the "Greatest Show on Turf" team, to be honest -- that is difficult to replicate in the best of circumstances, let alone with an entirely new coordinator and whatever other oddities flare up during the next season.
The Falcons' breakthrough this season has been thrilling, but that's exactly what it has been: a breakthrough. The Patriots, meanwhile, are essentially here every season. They know they can repeat their success, because they've done it again and again. As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still around, they're one of the favorites to go to any Super Bowl. Can you say that about the Falcons? I am not certain that one can.
This is key, because when it comes to Super Bowls, you often get one shot. Teams like the Patriots, and the Seahawks, and the Steelers, and even the Giants, they're here so often that they can elbow out many opportunities. As far as the Falcons know -- and certainly this is how they and their fans should treat it -- this is the only time they'll ever be here. This could be the one shot.
This got me to thinking about the other teams of the past 20 years that got just one shot, the ones who, like the Falcons, had all the stars align just right. They made their one appearance and never returned. Any Super Bowl appearance is the result of years of preparation and planning, but of course the plan is to make it to more than one. Here are the teams whose plight the Falcons are hoping to avoid.
Super Bowl XLVII, February 3, 2013: San Francisco 49ers. This was Jim Harbaugh's team -- you might remember that he faced his brother in this game? It was a whole thing -- that looked like it could be the future of the league. A fast, accurate read-option quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, a swarming defense and a coach who was just crazy enough to maybe be a genius. The 49ers were this close to winning this game, though this should be the definitive "do not throw a fade route on fourth and goal with the Super Bowl on the line" play. After this, Harbaugh and the 49ers' brass increasingly drove each other insane enough that they split up, and now Harbaugh is a college coach and the Niners (and Kaepernick) are mostly terrible. This one turned on them fast.
Super Bowl XLIII, February 1, 2009: Arizona Cardinals. This team shocked everyone by overcoming a mediocre regular season to blitz through the playoffs, winning a fantastic NFC Championship Game over Philadelphia to send the Cardinals to their first-ever Super Bowl. Kurt Warner was the engine of this team, but Larry Fitzgerald was the megastar, and in an alternate universe, his breakaway touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Steelers would be one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history. But Ben Roethlisberger brought the Steelers back, Santonio Holmes (apparently) got both feet down and the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl. Warner played one more season before retiring, and the closest the Cardinals have come since was losing the NFC Championship Game last season.
Super Bowl XLI, February 4, 2007: Chicago Bears. Future generations will not believe us when we tell them that Rex Grossman once took a team to the Super Bowl, but it's true. The real driver of Lovie Smith's Bears this year was the Brian Urlacher-led defense, but Grossman's issues popped up in the Super Bowl. The Colts did not play particularly well in this game, but they didn't need to. The Bears finished last in the division the next season and have only made the playoffs once since.
Super Bowl XXIX, February 6, 2005: Philadelphia Eagles. Weird that the Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid Eagles only made the Super Bowl once, right? They probably should have made it in four years later, but the Cardinals thwarted them. (Poor Eagles fans: The one Super Bowl they got to go to was in Jacksonville.) The Eagles hung tough in this game, but the Patriots were rolling at this point. Plus, you know, that whole McNabb stomach issues thing.
Super Bowl XXVIII, January 26, 2003: Oakland Raiders. Known as the Jon Gruden bowl at the time -- he took his Buccaneers against his former team, the Raiders -- this is one of the least memorable Super Bowls you'll come across. (Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson?) Until this year, this was the last time the Raiders made the Super Bowl, which is just sort of sad.
Super Bowl XXXIV: January 30, 2000: Tennessee Titans. One of the most breathtaking Super Bowl endings of all time, and it's the way you should always try to remember the late Steve McNair, who was amazing in this game. The Rams were the Greatest Show on Turf, but the Titans nearly shut them down until a final strike from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce. The Titans almost tied it up on final drive. If only Kevin Dyson's arm were a little longer. The Titans made a couple more playoff runs after this, but by that time, the Patriots dynasty had begun.
Then, of course, there are the one-timers who showed up and took advantage of their shot to make history.
Super Bowl XXVIII, January 26, 2003: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We already discussed this one. It wasn't that exciting.
Super Bowl XLIV, February 7, 2010: New Orleans Saints. This one, however, remains one of the most joyous Super Bowls in memory. Sure, the game itself was a blast, but it was all about what happened in the streets of New Orleans afterward. I will never turn down an opportunity to show this video.
The Falcons might be a blip, win or lose. But if they win, as Saints and Buccaneers fans can tell you … nobody cares if you're a blip.