The Trajectory’s End

Fifteen years ago, a team played in the Super Bowl. They were an offensive juggernaut, with a wide-open passing game, a scheme that fit their home dome advantage. They had a quarterback who, despite putting up record numbers, had been the subject of doubt throughout his career. Their franchise had had a checkered history: plenty of success, but their trips to the Super Bowl had been few and far between. Nevertheless, that team went into that Super Bowl as heavy favorites.

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Atlanta’s Matt Ryan: can he shoot down the Patriots’ missile?

And then they lost. That team was the then-St. Louis Rams, “the Greatest Show on Turf,” and they were taken out by the New England Patriots and their then-rookie quarterback, Tom Brady. So began the Patriots’ dynasty: four Super Bowl wins in six visits to the ultimate game.

Fifteen years later, another “greatest show on turf”–the Atlanta Falcons–will have a chance to end what the Patriots started all those years ago. And the chances of that happening are, from this vantage point, very, very good.

The DFR: Football

There are differences as well as similarities between today’s Atlanta Falcons and those St. Louis Rams.

The offensive fireworks form the obvious comparison. As Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has shouldered his share of doubts despite putting up huge numbers, so too did the Rams’ Kurt Warner. St. Louis may have had better offensive weapons; Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Devonta Freeman may not be quite up to the snuff of Isaac Bruce, Torii Holt, and Marshall Faulk despite their team’s impressive offense, but they’re formidable. Both teams share a “built for speed” profile that made the Falcons, at least this season, more of a handful than anyone else in the league could stop for long.

“Even the NFL’s greatest teams don’t continue winning forever. Teams ascend, and then they descend.”

The key difference lies in past success; those Rams were heavy favorites not just because the Patriots were led by a rookie quarterback and a then-questionable coach, but also because the Rams had won the previous year’s Super Bowl, and they had the look of a dynasty.

And yet, they lost. The Rams and their potent offense sputtered around for a while after that Super Bowl loss before ultimately slinking back into mediocrity (and worse) before abandoning St. Louis for their erstwhile home in Los Angeles. Greatest shows on turf, it turns out, have a rather short shelf life.

Nevertheless, there would be some kind of poetic justice in today’s Falcons bringing an end to what yesterday’s Rams helped start. There would be appropriate symmetry if New England’s run started and ended against the same kind of team.

And the bottom line is this: that run is going to end. No team has spent forever on top of the NFL. The league is designed to prevent just that sort of thing, with all of its parity-inducing rules, and short player shelf lives, and the ebbs and flows in the ways the game is played.

The game’s last extended dynasty, the 49ers of the ’80s and ’90s, ran from 1981 to 1994–just a bit shy of New England’s 15-year run. Don Shula’s Dolphins made the Super Bowl five times in the ’70s and ’80s; those were two distinct teams with a break between, but if you generously count that as a dynasty, the period covers 13 years. As discussed in this space previously, Dallas made the playoffs 20 consecutive years in Tom Landry’s days, including five Super Bowl appearances within a nine-year span. The Patriots’ run roughly splits the difference on Landry’s playoff appearances versus big game berths.

The point is, even the NFL’s greatest teams don’t continue winning forever. Teams ascend, and then they descend. The Patriots have been at the pinnacle for a long time, and there are reasons to believe that their trajectory is speedily approaching its end.

Chief among those reasons is, in fact, the two men cited most often as New England’s bedrocks of strength: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Simply put, they’re getting old, and Father Time remains undefeated. There’s going to come a point when those guys just can’t get it done anymore. The issue will be more pressing for Brady rather than Belichick, of course, but both men will not be around much longer, regardless of what either says now.

That fact may have little bearing on Sunday’s game–though you can’t be certain it won’t. Nevertheless, there are current, on the field reasons to believe that the Patriots may be in for a surprise come Sunday in Houston.

The Pats may not seem vulnerable, considering the relative ease with which the Patriots made it through the AFC playoffs, but that is itself an argument against them. Think about it: as usual, the Patriots walked into the postseason with nary a real challenge from any of their AFC East rivals. Then, thanks to Derek Carr’s injury, they were served up a terribly flawed Houston Texans team–at least on the offensive side of the ball–that posed no real threat. Finally, they were confronted in the AFC Championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that was, in a lot of ways, only a small step up from the Texans: good (but not great) defense paired with highly-skilled–but inconsistent–offense. The lack of real tests made playoffs mostly a cakewalk for New England.

Not so with the Falcons. They had to beat the Seahawks, a descending but still dangerous former championship team. Then they had to clear the major hurdle of Aaron Rodgers. Atlanta did so in a thorough beat-down that was built as much by their maligned defense as it was their impressive offense. By the time Ryan and company were causing the scoreboard to say “Tilt” the Falcons D had already harried Rodgers into submission.

Now comes the Super Bowl. The Falcons will be playing in Houston’s dome, not unlike their own environment, one that’s conducive to their fast and furious offensive game.

Yes, Belichick has had two weeks to prepare for Atlanta; perhaps he’ll have everything diagnosed and direct his defense to a shutdown performance. Perhaps. But the other guys have coaches–and players–too. Good ones.

And yes, indeed, there may be some wishful thinking in all this. I’m no Patriots fan; frankly, I’m tired of seeing them. The Falcons have never been a particularly inspiring team throughout their fairly mundane history, but if it’s a choice between rooting for Atlanta to win, and watching a rerun of that Super Bowl fifteen years ago–the game that launched a thousand video fellatio pieces on The Worldwide Leader celebrating Bristol’s house team–then count me among the Falcons’ partisans. At least this Sunday, I’m on board with the ATL.

Thankfully, it doesn’t come down to rooting; it all boils down to who plays better. And history says that change, on that front, inevitably comes. Now would be a good time for the NFL to witness the Patriots’ flight come to its end.


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