Tuesday, 4 a.m.
It could have happened to us, of course.
Tampa Bay could have been the team that couldn't stop Tom Brady. It could have been the team that flipped through the media guides trying to figure out who James White was, and why he was stomping on their throats. It could have been us that suddenly wanted to push offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan out the door. It could have been the Bucs who finished off the greatest choke in Super Bowl history.
Lord knows, we've lost a lot in a parallel existence with the Bucs. Frankly, neither team has been very good over the years. Frankly, the towns should arm-wrestle over the phrase “Loserville.”
But can you imagine what Tampa Bay would be like today if it was the Bucs, and not the Falcons, who grabbed their throats and made gagging noises like Darth Vader was in the
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room. Can you imagine the sting of hearing how great Brady is and how great Belichick is and how great Robert Kraft is and how Julian Edelman had the best catch ever and how the team won the best comeback ever?
Just a guess, but it would be 100 times worse than the robbery over the Bert Emmanuel catch. It would be more of a nightmare than those cold losses in Philadelphia. It would be more painful than the games that went the wrong way in Green Bay.
You can imagine two guys passing each other, shaking their heads.
"Good game. Should have had them."
"Brady's good, though."
"Yeah, but we opened the door. Who called those plays in the fourth quarter? Norb Hecker?"
"Just run out the clock."
"That way, you don't choke."
"But they did."
Yeah, Atlanta is welcome to that, all right.
To tell you the truth, the first pro football team I ever covered were the Falcons. For the most part, they were awful. I covered the Dolphins in the Dan Marino years. Then I covered the Bucs for more than 25 years. I've seen ugly. I have retinal scarring from watching.
So, yeah, trust me when I say that the Bucs, too, could have blown a 28-3 lead lead to Tom Brady and the Patriots. It's been done (remember that collapse against the Colts in 2003 by a team we thought to be very good? Yeah, me, too.)
We could have broken familiar hearts, too. We could have watched a team walk off the field with glassy eyes, like a fighter who was leading and then was knocked out in the last round. We could have muttered beneath our breath, too, that we had them, we had the rings, we had the confetti.
And then, we didn't.
The Falcons had lost an earlier Super Bowl, but that was relatively painless. John Elway was the star that night, and the game was decided by 15 points. The Broncos took a 17-3 lead, and it was all over but the odes written to Elway.
The thing is, that Falcons team wasn't anything special. It had losing record the two years before that Super Bowl and three years afterward. But that Atlanta team also won in overtime after a great comeback (beating the Vikings on a missed kick).
Except for that, the teams have pretty much walked the same path.
The Falcons had cantankerous Norm Van Brocklin, who would let the writers know if he was in a bad mood. The Bus had cantankerous John McKay, who would let the writers know if he was in a bad mood.
The Falcons had former Heisman winner Pat Sullivan. The Bucs had former Heisman winner Steve Spurrier.
The Falcons had a Hall of Fame defensive end in Claude Humphrey. The Bucs had a Hall of Fame defensive end in Lee Roy Selmon.
The Falcons would like to forget that Bobby Petrino coached there. The Bucs would like to forget that Ray Perkins coached here.
Rich McKay worked here. Rich McKay worked there.
The Falcons missed on Aundray Bruce, who was supposed to be a pass-rusher. The Bucs missed on Eric Curry, who was supposed to be a pass rusher.
Also, Tony Casillas.
Also, Keith McCants.
The Falcons had Jerry Glanville.
The Bucs had Sam Wyche.
The Falcons hired Pat Peppler, who they hired out of the front office.
The Bucs hired Greg Schiano, who they hired out of Rutgers (and the cast of Stripes).
The Falcons had Michael Vick, who was horrible to dogs.
The Bucs had Josh Freeman, who played like a dog.
And so it goes.
The thing is, the latest edition of the Falcons is going to be difficult for the Bucs to contend with in the years to come. This Atlanta team is young enough, skilled enough. But you know what? You could have said the same thing last year about Carolina. We still don't know if Sunday night's crumble will have a lingering affect on the Falcons.
You can say this: The Bucs have a heavy schedule in front of them. They have the Patriots, who spit out titles as if from a copier. They have the Falcons twice, who were the runner-up. They have the Panthers twice, and they were the previous season's runners-up. They have Green Bay. They have the Giants. They have the Lions. They have the Dolphins. The Saints are always a pain.
For a team that has some catching up to do, it's fairly imposing.