Perhaps you'll join me in rolling your eyes over clichés, but this one works. I mean, it's a blessing and a curse that the reeling Atlanta Falcons will travel to New England for a nationally televised game on Sunday night against a team that made their lives miserable the last time they faced each other.
Remember the Super Bowl?
The Falcons do. Boy, do they, and that's the curse, especially since they're preparing to play the folks who hexed them, but let's get the "blessing" part out of the way before we deal with the ugliness for the defending NFC champs.
Even though the Falcons own the flimsiest 3-2 record you'll ever see, they could make a bunch of their woes vanish by stifling the otherworldly Tom Brady and his Patriots before the football universe. Such a moment would come for the Falcons after eight months and countless milliseconds of "28-3" rattling around their subconscious, along with those of others into old or new Dirty Birds.
"The guys are still positive. We have a long season to go, and we know what we have to do, and we just have to keep grinding," Falcons safety Deion Jones said, auditioning for the Cliché Hall of Fame when we discussed what he thought about the state of his team after a two-game losing streak. He left out "taking one game at a time," but that's understood when you're the Falcons, and your next game has a chance to become a blessing for another reason. When Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers became as ordinary as nearly everybody else in the NFC. The Philadelphia Eagles are shocking people at 5-1, but the rest of the conference has an epidemic of teams around .500. With a victory over the Patriots, the Falcons would fly in the vicinity of the Eagles atop the NFC at 4-2, and the momentum from whipping Brady would push Atlanta toward kissing the farthest cloud.
So much for dreaming, especially given the nightmarish ways of the Falcons during the first quarter of the season. Then again, Brady hasn't gotten the Patriots much above good so far, but this is for sure: Whether many Falcons officials, coaches and players wish to admit it publicly or not, "28-3" is spooking them like crazy, and it's not because this is the Halloween season. Just last Sunday, the Falcons showed again that they aren't immune to doing the improbable with a lead. They watched their 17-0 advantage at home against the shaky Miami Dolphins evolve into a loss filled with blown assignments, weird play calling that featured just two carries for splendid running back Devonta Freeman in the second half and more reasons to believe the Falcons are haunted by blowing that 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI to the Patriots.
"I didn't necessarily think about what happened in the Super Bowl during this game, but after it was over, I was like, 'Wow, this is something we've definitely experienced before,'" Falcons pass-rushing ace Vic Beasley Jr. told me, delivering the truth in so many ways after their latest collapse triggered an explosion of questions and tension around them.
Regarding that tension: Julio Jones has zero touchdown catches this year, and it makes you wonder if that's why this usually mild-mannered wide receiver chided reporters for asking a question he didn't like. Not directed to him, but to a teammate across the way. Free safety Ricardo Allen kept mentioning that the Falcons can't stay focused beyond stretches here and there. "Even when we're winning near the end of the game, we're flat, and I don't understand it," Allen said, looking as frustrated as he sounded when recalling how the Dolphins entered the game with the NFL's second-worst rushing attack but nearly doubled their per-game average Sunday. Miami was also at the bottom of the league in scoring. Nevertheless, it didn't have a problem reeling off 20 unanswered points against its mostly disinterested hosts.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was that subconscious thing for the Falcons. I'm thinking they drifted during the Dolphins' comeback back to last February in Houston, where Brady threw a couple of two-point conversion passes in the clutch, when the Atlanta coaching staff forgot near the end of regulation they had a super runner named Freeman, and when the Falcons didn't realize until it was too late that NFL games last 60 minutes. That is, unless the games go into overtime, which Super Bowl LI did, and the Patriots quickly put the Falcons out of their misery.
"That correlation [between losing the lead in the Super Bowl and against the Dolphins], it doesn't matter what lead you have, because when you lose it, that just stinks no matter what," Allen said. "Yes, that happened to us last season, but that correlation is just brought over by the media."
True. This also is true: Ever since the Falcons lost that 28-3 lead in the third quarter to New England for the worst meltdown ever on the biggest stage in American professional sports, they've been a mess. They've been outscored 72-40 in the second half of games. Not only that, but other than their come-from-ahead loss against the Buffalo Bills, they've had double-digit leads in each of their other games, and those potential blowouts either became Atlanta losses or trended in that direction. In case you're wondering, the Falcons blew "only" a three-point lead to the Bills. That was before their fiasco against the Dolphins, and I haven't mentioned why their winning record is deceptive.
The Falcons opened the season in Chicago, where the bumbling Bears couldn't manage a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds despite multiple tries from the Falcons' five-yard line on first-and-goal. In Detroit, the Lions scored what appeared to be the game-winning TD near the end, but the call was reversed, and the Lions didn't get another play from their spot near the end zone due to an obscure rule involving a 10-second runoff. In between, the Falcons whipped Green Bay by 11, but they were up by 24.
So what's the problem here?
"I feel like we just have to settle down," Jones said, losing the clichés when discussing (ahem) the blessing and the curse of his youthful team, particularly on defense with seven starters 25 or under. "We're a fast group, and we're always flying around. Just that grit and all of that comes into play, but we have to settle down and be more locked in on the task at hand. As far as effort, I feel like we're doing a great job, but less mental errors. Whatever it is."
I know what it is -- It's ''28-3," and it's not leaving the Falcons anytime soon, especially after they get off that plane in Boston.