FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons practiced under blue skies Thursday, the temperature climbing toward 70 degrees.
A rare sight, indeed, for this time of year — and not just because of the unseasonable winter weather.
For only the eighth time in the franchise’s 51-season history, the Falcons are among the final eight teams in the NFL playoffs. Of course, they have never won a Super Bowl title, an unachieved goal that looms in front of this high-scoring team heading into Saturday’s divisional round game against the Seattle Seahawks.
“It would be a huge,” said defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux, the team’s longest-tenured player. “The city of Atlanta has been waiting on a Super Bowl for many years now. To have a season like we’ve had, to be able to play the way we’ve been playing, everybody’s excited, man.”
Defensive end Dwight Freeney, in his first season with the team but 15th overall, can speak from experience about what it’s like to be on a team carrying the burden of history. When he was with the Indianapolis Colts, they repeatedly came up short in the playoffs before finally winning it all during the 2006 season.
“It’s kind of like you can breathe,” Freeney said. “You had something so heavy on your back and you couldn’t get it off.”
The Falcons made their only Super Bowl appearance during the 1998 season with a team that was known as the “Dirty Birds.”
Despite going 14-2 during the regular season, still the best mark in team history, Atlanta was a huge underdog in the NFC championship game at Minnesota, facing a Vikings team that had lost only once and set what was then a record for most points in a season.
But the Falcons rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter, catching a huge break when Gary Anderson botched a 38-yard field goal attempt in the closing minutes — his only miss of the season. Atlanta won in overtime, 30-27, on Morten Andersen’s field goal.
The magic of that inspiring victory did not carry over to the Super Bowl. Team leader Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game, and the Falcons lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19 in John Elway’s finale.
Second-year coach Dan Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator when the Seahawks won their first Super Bowl title three seasons ago. Looking to keep the focus firmly on this week’s game, he doesn’t want the Falcons thinking about the big picture.
Not yet anyway.
“That would be a great topic for a few weeks from now,” Quinn said with a smile.
Looking at their total body of work, the Falcons certainly rank as one of the least successful franchises in the history of the NFL, and a point can be made they’re at the bottom of the barrel.
For starters, there are 13 franchises that have never won a Super Bowl title, but seven of those did capture either an NFL or AFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl era. Detroit and Cleveland each won four NFL titles before 1967, Philadelphia picked up three, and the Cardinals (in their original home of Chicago) nabbed two. Buffalo and the Tennessee Titans (the latter as the Houston Oilers) both won a pair of American Football League crowns, while the San Diego Chargers claimed one.
Atlanta is joined by Minnesota, Cincinnati, Carolina, Jacksonville and the Houston Texans as the only franchises never to win a title of any kind.
But the Vikings, with four Super Bowl losses in the 1970s, and the Bengals and the Panthers, with two each, have been to the big game more than the Falcons. Jacksonville (founded in 1995) and Houston (2002) have yet to play in the Super Bowl, but they’ve been around fewer seasons combined than Atlanta, which joined the league in 1966.
In fairness, the Falcons have been much more successful since Arthur Blank purchased the team in 2002 from its original owners, the roundly panned Smith family. They have been to the playoffs seven times, won four divisional championships and made it twice to the NFC championship game, coming up just short of a second Super Bowl appearance during the 2012 season when a potential game-winning drive against the San Francisco 49ers was stopped at the 10-yard line.
Still, the stigma of never winning a title lingers over the franchise.
Over the whole city of Atlanta, really.
The Braves are still the city’s only major pro sports team to capture a championship, and even they are remembered more for all their postseason failures than their lone World Series triumph in 1995.
“After hearing things … it makes you work extra hard,” rookie safety Keanu Neal said. “You know that the fans and everybody in Atlanta and Georgia care about this team and want us to do well.”