ATLANTA -- OK, this was different. Ricardo Allen kept flashing the brightest of smiles a few days ago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. As for what happened six months ago when he and his Atlanta Falcons watched their rout of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl turn into the biggest choke in NFL history, he shrugged before saying, "That game is yesterday. It has shown us where we have gone and how good we can be, but that game has been gone for a while. We don't care about that anymore."
The last time I huddled with Allen before this one, he was a mess. So were his teammates after they did the unprecedented by blowing that 25-point lead in February at NRG Stadium in Houston. Allen's pain was worse than that of the others as their deep-thinking free safety who spends every games squeezing the max out of his 5-foot-9 frame of 185 pounds. Imagine grief wrapped around hopelessness, and then multiply that by the 31 straight points the Patriots used to seal the Falcons' fate in overtime.
"You know what? I'm numb. I'm broken. To tell you the truth, I really don't know what to feel at this point," Allen told me and others back then, barely moving at his Super Bowl podium after the Falcons couldn't survive down the stretch despite crushing the Patriots late into the third quarter.
To hear Allen tell it, all of that is now a forgotten horror flick for the Falcons, and it doesn't hurt they're 2-0 this season. After they got by the Bears in Chicago during the final seconds in the opener for both teams, they christened their new $1.5 billion home Sunday night on national television by smashing the Green Bay Packers. The usually stellar Aaron Rodgers at quarterback was pounded all night by an Atlanta defense that looked deadlier than last year's version along the way to a 34-23 rout. There also was a lot of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman from the Atlanta offense.
In the aftermath, Allen was more than pleased, not only with the victory, but with the recovery. Yes, the recovery.
Surely the Falcons continue with the recovery.
"We were over the Super Bowl when that clock hit zero at the Super Bowl," Allen said, without blinking as I waited for pigs wearing chinstraps to fly around the room, especially since his description of Atlanta's post- Super Bowl mood wasn't what I saw that night. Many players sat in silence back then while staring at the floor. Others weren't around, presumably weeping or fuming in private quarters around the stadium. Some waved away reporter after reporter. Even though Allen spoke to me and others despite his suffering after the Super Bowl, he wasn't his usually upbeat self.
Now, with the Falcons rising from No. 5 to No. 2 behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the current Associated Press Power Rankings, Allen was Allen again. He's the undisputed leader of the team when it comes to putting the moment into perspective, and so it was regarding the Falcons' third consecutive victory over a Packers bunch picked to move deep into the postseason.
"It's sorry to say, but last year, we beat them twice in a row, and we still come out this time, and everybody is like, 'Well, OK. That didn't matter. Aaron Rodgers is going run all over them, and he's going to do whatever he wants over their defense,'" Allen said. "And that's a slap in the face. I know Aaron Rodgers is great, man, and his team is really good, but, wow. For us to go out there and play really well against them and beat them two times and now a third year in a row, and we're just finally getting a little bit of credit. It's kind of overdue."
Such things happen when you're the Falcons, and you allow a 28-3 lead to evaporate before the largest TV audience on the planet, and you know the whole thing hangs over you as heavily as that massive "halo" scoreboard inside of your new $1.5 billion playhouse.
So why did Allen's smile grow wider?
"The only people who are still on the Super Bowl is the media," Allen said. "No disrespect to anybody, but us as a team, this is a new year. If we had won the Super Bowl, it would have still been a new year. That game is past."
I guess, but I'll speak for me: I can't get neither those words nor that sight of Allen out of my head after the Falcons somehow didn't win Super Bowl LI. I'll never forget listening to his voice crackle after his team went from destroying the Seattle Seahawks and the Packers during the playoffs last season to Allen saying following the Patriots fiasco, "I'm broken inside, because this is not us. This is terrible. This is one of the worst feelings ever. I'll probably never forget this, and it probably always will haunt me."
That was the Allen of then. With apologies to the Allen of now, the Falcons still haven't gotten over that Super Bowl collapse.
They'll never recover.
"Recover," Allen said, pausing, before he eventually returned to reality by pondering how long it took him to embrace that word after the Falcons landed in Atlanta from Houston. "It took a while, man. You replay the game all the time in your head, and you replay the calls, and you replay what you could have done to help somebody else. You do those types of things all the time, but I'm also the type of person who takes everything in a positive manner. There was a reason I was put on the practice squad. That was the best thing for me at that time. I'm not saying it's great to lose a Super Bowl, but it happened. Now we're going to take the positives out of it, and we know that we're good enough to be there, and we played against one of the best teams with one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. We fought with them all the way until the last second. We know we can do that again. We know we're getting better and better. We were a very young team, and we made some mistakes ourselves, but there has been a lot of fire built inside of us because of that game."
Yeah, that collective inferno is a start for the Falcons during their attempt to burn away what happened against the Patriots, and a Super Bowl victory this season over anybody would help. It's just that, when it comes to losing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, there isn't a cure.