We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
The Atlanta Falcons would prefer not to talk about the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl happened last year, and, well, “Last year,” second-year safety Keanu Neal says, standing before reporters on the first day of training camp with a grave look on his face, “is last year.” He insists this season “is something new.”
It is. The season is new for many reasons, among them the passage of time. But for the Falcons’ purposes, it is new primarily because it represents the start of a season in which they have not lost the Super Bowl, a season in which no team has won or lost any game of any significance.
So forget about last season, the Falcons say, one after the other, all through the first days of training camp at their facility in the Atlanta suburb of Flowery Branch. Up in New England, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are turning training camp into a party—complete with the return of Gronk and the parading of actual goats to mark Tom Brady’s birthday. But here in Atlanta, there is no revelry, only the relief that comes with starting anew. It’s late July. The heat is high, but not lethal, the humidity just shy of malevolence. One by one, Falcons players stand before reporters and practice amnesia.
“I don’t really like to talk about that,” Neal says about the Super Bowl. “This is a new training camp. This is about us.”
“Once we get into training camp,” says running back Tevin Coleman, “our focus is all in on this team right here.”
The team line extends even to the rookies, like fifth-round pick defensive back Damontae Kazee, who when asked about joining a team that won the NFC championship says, flatly, “I won’t talk about that.”
They don’t even refer to it as the Super Bowl. They call it “the last game.” The Falcons’ last game, you’ll remember, was a grand collapse on the sport’s largest stage. It was a game that started slowly and broke wide open in the second quarter, with Atlanta’s historically proficient offense slicing through New England’s defense as the Falcons’ young and talented but often-unreliable defense played perhaps its best half of football of the season. They’d shut out the Pats through much of the first half, and just when it looked like New England was putting together a scoring drive, cornerback Robert Alford jumped a quick slant pass to Danny Amendola and took it 82 yards the other way for a touchdown. After a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to end the first half and a Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Coleman early in the third quarter, the Falcons had their now-famously surmountable lead: 28-3.
The 2017 Falcons want to talk about the here and now. They’re moving into a futuristic new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, built next to the site of their former home, the Georgia Dome. They want to talk about this season, this team, about playing “fast and physical,” about their new motto “Ball, Brotherhood, and Battle,” about the weapons at Ryan’s disposal and the disruptive playmakers on their defense. The season is long, they say, but they’ll take it day by day. The division is tough, they insist, but they can compete to win it. Training camp is hot, yes, but they’ve brought plenty of Gatorade. They delight in their own clichés, in the mundanity of the post-practice media ritual. Just keep the questions far away from that Sunday night in Houston, from the moment they went up 28-3 over the Patriots, or the moment when then–offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan chose to get reckless and open the door for a comeback, or the moment, early in overtime, when running back James White completed New England’s comeback with a game-winning 2-yard touchdown run.
Entering 2017, the Falcons have reason for optimism. Sitting at a podium in a small media room on the team’s campus, hair mussed and face bespectacled, general manager Thomas Dimitroff explains why: “I don’t think,” he says, “I’ve ever been more confident with a total roster than I am right now.”
I am a Falcons fan. I grew up in Atlanta’s suburbs and have suffered alongside the city’s teams ever since. I have never seen the Falcons win a Super Bowl because no one has ever seen them win a Super Bowl. In 51 seasons, they have won the NFC twice: With the Jamal Anderson–led Dirty Birds in the 1998 season and, again, in the 2016 season. Otherwise, they have been at turns competent-but-boring (the Mike Smith era), electrifying but doomed (the Michael Vick era), or just plain awful (pretty much every other era).
My earliest sports memory is watching the Twins’ Jack Morris outlast the Braves’ John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. The 26 years since have been marked by both predictable and unpredictable failures—the Braves giving up a 2-0 lead in the 1996 World Series, the Falcons losing Super Bowl XXXIII the day after Pro Bowl safety Eugene Robinson was arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute, the 2014-15 Hawks getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers after putting together one of the least-intimidating no. 1-seed seasons in recent NBA history. It extends even to the collegiate level. I sat in the Georgia Dome for the SEC championship game between Georgia and Alabama in 2012, essentially a national championship semifinal, and watched Chris Conley catch a pass he should have dropped on the 5-yard line, time expiring before the Bulldogs could get off a potential game-winning play. Somewhere in my brain exists a memory of experiencing joy, of the Braves defeating the Indians in the 1995 World Series, but my mental images of that night erode by the day.
So when the Falcons went up 28-3, I sat in a room full of friends, none of them Atlanta fans but all rooting lightly for their success, and I proclaimed what I knew to be true. “We’re going to lose,” I said. Everyone laughed. Then White caught a Brady touchdown pass to make it 28-9. They laughed some more. Then Gostkowski hit another field goal and Brady hit Amendola for a 6-yard score. 28-20. And then Shanahan soiled his reputation as a play-calling genius, refusing to run the ball and drain the clock, and Julian Edelman made a catch that seems no less preposterous six months after the fact, and finally, deep in the fourth quarter, my inevitable reality set in. Atlanta was going to lose. Atlanta was always going to lose.
When it was over, the Falcons had given up the largest lead in Super Bowl history. They’d completely broken the win probability chart. They’d set a new standard of postseason collapse for a city that knows little other than postseason collapse. Of course they had. This script had been written the moment the team was born, or perhaps, as noted Atlantan Rembert Browne has theorized, the moment the city got the Olympics. It had to happen this way. It felt like the 25-point lead had existed only to make sure this was a loss no one would ever forget.
So it is strange, now, to stand and listen to Falcons players talk as if they’ve already forgotten. They haven’t, of course—they will remember the details of that day far longer than any fan—but as they embark on a new training camp, they talk as if the pain of that night in Houston has already receded. They addressed it as a team in April, right here in Flowery Branch, at the very first team meeting of the offseason. Head coach Dan Quinn stood before the team and invited players to vent. Some were angry, others sad, still others stiff and silent. “It was just like talking to your brothers,” says wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. “Everyone was emotional.”
Through the offseason, the Falcons couldn’t escape looking back at what went wrong in Houston. Devonta Freeman told SiriusXM, “I hate to go there, but I was supposed to be the MVP this year of the Super Bowl.” With the team up, Shanahan continued passing rather than playing it conservative and leaning on Freeman and Coleman to run out the clock. “If I would have kept getting the ball … if I would have stayed in the game, I would have got MVP.” Shanahan, now head coach of the 49ers, owned up to his mistakes. In the course of one evening, he went from the league’s latest offensive genius to one of the Super Bowl’s all-time goats, his failures manifest in one second-and-11 call, with about four minutes remaining and the Falcons up 28-20, when he declined to run the ball and settle for a field goal if the drive stalled and instead called a pass play. Ryan held onto the ball for too long and was sacked by Trey Flowers, taking the Falcons out of field goal range and leading to a punt. “There’s no doubt,” Shanahan told Rich Eisen this offseason after leaving for San Francisco, “the [second-and-11] that we got sacked on, I wish I had dialed something up differently.”
And then there’s Ryan. The reigning MVP appeared in a Gatorade ad this summer, reenacting the moment he walked off the field after the game and declaring the secret to victory: “Defeat.”
In an interview with CBS’s Pete Prisco, Ryan thought back on some of Shanahan’s play calls, saying that there was little time for him to audible into something new. “With the way Kyle’s system was set up,” he said, “he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn’t get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I’m all for it. But there’s also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there.”
But now, standing before reporters early in training camp, Ryan barely says a word about anything that happened before the start of this very camp. “We’ve moved on,” he says. “We’re on to this year. And we’re focused on trying to become the best football team that this team can be.”
They can be good. Really good. If healthy, and if lucky, they can be good enough to get back to the Super Bowl. New England appears primed for a run toward a repeat, but Vegas puts the Falcons just a shade behind the Packers, Cowboys, and Seahawks as favorites to win the NFC. Dimitroff has said this roster is the most talented he’s ever had. That starts with Ryan, who will man an offense that led the league in scoring, yards per play, and offensive DVOA, surrounded by essentially the exact same collection of weapons he took to the Super Bowl.
Behind him are Freeman and Coleman, versatile backs who can be interchangeable to spell each other or can line up on the field at the same time. “I think those guys are two of the most talented guys in the league and are three-down backs,” Ryan told reporters after a July practice. “They catch the ball really well for us. They run the ball in between the tackles, outside the tackles.” Freeman’s agent and the team are working on a contract extension that would earn the former fourth-round pick a substantial raise from his $1.8 million base salary this season and a paycheck commensurate with his worth. Though he had hoped to sign a deal before the start of camp, he says he never considered holding out. “I don’t want the contract situation to take me away from what God blessed me to do,” Freeman says after one practice. “I wouldn’t rather be doing nothing else than playing football.”
On the outside, Ryan returns his full complement of receiving options. There’s the impossible Julio Jones, a man whose sky-touching, sideline-scraping grab late in the fourth quarter would have gone down as one of the Super Bowl’s greatest-ever catches if Shanahan and Edelman had never happened. Then there’s the tiny-but-explosive Gabriel and the sure-handed Mohamed Sanu. Much of the chatter around the opening of camp centered around one of the unsexiest position battles imaginable—Ben Garland versus Wes Schweitzer for the chance to start at right guard—because there’s so little in doubt elsewhere on the offense. The unit will be orchestrated by Steve Sarkisian, the former USC head coach, who replaces Shanahan after Sarkisian’s one-game stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in its national title loss to Clemson. Under Shanahan, the Falcons ran a fast-paced system built on outside zone running plays and some West Coast concepts, but with a significant amount of effort dedicated to making explosive plays downfield. Sarkisian, who fired from his job at Southern Cal amid concerns over his alcohol use, expects his offense to look much the same as Shanahan’s in an effort to maintain organizational continuity. “My goal,” he says, “was to come in and get comfortable with what they’ve already done. Then I could bring in ideas for where I thought I could help the offense grow.”
On the other side of the ball, former defensive coordinator Richard Smith was fired after leading an aggressive-but-erratic unit. He’s been replaced by former secondary coach Marquand Manuel. “His fire’s lit, and it does not go out ...” Quinn says of Manuel. “That’s the essence of what a competitor is.” He’ll lead a unit that came into its own down the stretch last season, built on young talents Vic Beasley—who led the league in sacks—speedy and versatile inside linebacker Deion Jones, and head-hunting safety Neal. The team drafted edge rusher Takk McKinley 26th overall and swaggering, car-pulling linebacker Duke Riley in the third round. They also add middle-clogging tackle Dontari Poe and return lockdown corner Desmond Trufant, whose 2016 season ended with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 9. It’s the most talented defense Atlanta has fielded in recent memory, and the players fall over themselves to praise their new coordinator. Says defensive tackle Grady Jarrett: “He’ll take days and actually do individual drills with certain groups. He’ll go with the defensive backs and do individual drills, he’ll go with the linebackers, he’ll even come down to the defensive line and do some of our drills. It’s real fun to play for him, and we just know he has high standards for us. He knows how could we can be and he demands that day in and day out.”
Training camp questions remain. As much as the Falcons evade talk of a Super Bowl hangover, numbers suggest the phenomenon is real. Since the Bills ended their streak of four straight Super Bowl losses in 1994, no losing team has made a Super Bowl return the following year. Even making the playoffs can be a crapshoot: 43.5 percent of Super Bowl losers have missed the next year’s postseason entirely. For evidence, the Falcons need look no further than their division rival Carolina, who fell to 6-10 last season after going 15-1 and making the Super Bowl in the 2015 season. The Panthers’ possible resurgence is just one reason Atlanta’s path will be tough this year. Carolina figures to rebound, and elsewhere in the division, the Bucs appear ascendant and the Saints remain competitive. With Atlanta facing a first-place schedule, a repeat division title is far from guaranteed.
And yet there is hope, evident in the energy around Falcons camp, in the words of their players and coaches, in the sheer volume of talent dripping from their roster. With every day, the memory of that February night in Houston grows just a tad more faint. It’s August. Atlanta is 0-0. The Falcons are living, at least for now, in a time of infinite possibility.