A close friend of mine in the Boston area is a long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. So after the devastation of last winter, and what unfolded that memorable night against the Patriots in Houston, he's looking for reasons to believe this summer. And surprisingly enough, there are many.
On one hand, a team losing the Super Bowl and then getting back to the game and winning it the next year for redemption hasn't happened since Don Shula's perfect-season Dolphins rebounded in 1972, wiping away the stench of their 21-point loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI. That's four and a half decades of NFL history if you're keeping track. No small sample size.
On the other hand, Atlanta would be just the latest in a fairly impressive line of recent teams that were dealt one of the ultimate blows in sports — losing on the big stage — and still managed to pick itself up and fight its way to the top, earning sweet revenge in the process.
As my friend himself suggested, here are the highlights I would have locked and loaded and ready to show my Falcons players on a continuous loop this preseason if I were Atlanta's third-year head coach Dan Quinn. Roll the tape and keep those fingers crossed, Falcons folk:
- The 2003 Boston Red Sox are five outs away from beating their historic nemesis in Yankee Stadium, leading 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth and on their way to their first World Series appearance since 1986. Then Grady Little, Pedro Martinez and eventually Aaron Boone happens, and its New York that prevails 6-5 in 11 innings. It was one of the most crushing losses in the Red Sox tortured history.
But 2004 wiped it all out, with Boston becoming the first team to ever rally from a three games to nothing hole in the postseason, beating the Yankees four straight in the ALCS and then waltzing to a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series, ending the franchise's 86-year title drought. Bye-bye Curse of the Bambino.
- The 2008 Celtics win their first NBA title since 1986, besting the arch-rival Lakers in six games, including an embarrassing 39-point blowout in the deciding Game 6 as the celebration starts early in Boston. But the next year, the Lakers return to the finals and trounce Orlando in five games to earn a ring. And the story gets even better in 2010, as the Lakers-Celtics rematch unfolds in the finals, with Los Angeles exacting revenge against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in the course of a seven-game series triumph.
- The NBA Finals of recent vintage provides us a dizzying amount of payback/comeback story lines that the Falcons can soak up and use for motivational fodder. In the briefest of recaps, we will attempt to summarize them all.
In 2011, the LeBron James-led Heat fall to Dallas in six games in No. 6's first season in Miami. But the 2012 Heat earn redemption with a five-game demolition of Oklahoma City, with King James winning his first ring. Miami follows that up with another ring in 2013, knocking off San Antonio in seven games. But the Spurs rise up and get their revenge the following season, dismissing the Heat in five to win the 2014 NBA championship.
You know the delicious plot twists of 2015, 2016 and 2017 in the NBA. Golden State knocks off the James-led Cavaliers in six games in 2015, with Cleveland scoring the improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit to the record-breaking Warriors to win the franchise's long-sought first title in 2016. But that just sets up Golden State to get off the matt — and sign Kevin Durant — to exact its own measure of revenge this year, humbling the Cavs in five games. Check mate.
- The feel-good 2014 Kansas City Royals made it to the World Series for the franchise's first trip in 29 years, much like the last season's Falcons had waited 18 long years between Super Bowl appearances. Once there, the Royals fell in heartbreaking seven-game fashion to the dynastic San Francisco Giants, seeing the tying run stranded on third in the bottom of the ninth of a 3-2 loss, courtesy of the super-human Madison Bumgarner. What a gut punch Kansas City absorbed.
But that devastation did not deter the Royals, and 2015 brought a different ending, with Kansas City dismissing the just-happy-to-be-here Mets in five games, winning in redemptive style 30 years after the franchise's first World Series title. The Royals' angst lasted all of one year.
- And lest you think that such inspiring agony-to-ecstasy turnaround stories occur only at the professional level, let's not forget what Clemson football fans endured in 2016-17. The No. 1 Tigers led No. 2 Alabama 24-21 at the end of three quarters in the 2016 national championship game, only to see the unstoppable Crimson Tide score 24 fourth-quarter points to win 45-40 and secure its fourth title in seven years.
But the Tigers and quarterback DeShaun Watson did not let that bitter defeat define them or their collegiate careers. Last January, with Watson throwing for a ridiculous 420 yards, No. 2 Clemson evened the score against No. 1 Alabama, rallying for 21 final-quarter points to win 35-31. For heightened dramatic effect, the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with a single second left on the clock, making the near-miss as devastating as possible for the Tide. It was Clemson's first title in 35 years, and it couldn't have been any sweeter.
- Lastly, there's mens college basketball and the flip-the-script routine executed by North Carolina the past two years. The favored Tar Heels, playing in the same NRG Stadium in Houston that proved to be a house of horrors for the Falcons against the Patriots, saw Villanova hit a game-winning, 25-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to win 77-74, wiping out a strong North Carolina comeback from a late 10-point deficit.
But in April of this year, the Tar Heels proved resilient enough to ensure there would be no repeat torment. They got back to the national championship game and this time took care of business, knocking off a 37-1 Gonzaga team that had been on a magic carpet ride all season long. Carolina scored the game's final eight points to win 71-65, earning the school's sixth national championship. A soul-killing loss in Houston, it seems, can be quickly overcome.
Will the Falcons follow suit and get past their deepest valley to reach the mountaintop next February? Will fate even have the Patriots waiting in Minneapolis as the final hurdle Atlanta has to overcome to bury its painful 25-point meltdown against New England? As recent results suggests, it can be done. But for now, the Falcons have to put in the work and wait to find out if this is the best kind of history repeating itself.