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Former Atlanta RB Downs gives insider's take of '98, '12 Falcons
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NFC championship: 2 teams, different perspectives

Gary Downs will be pulling for the Atlanta Falcons just as hard as any other fan today in front of his television. He thinks Atlanta has the talent to get past the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game with a slot in the Super Bowl on the line. Downs, now the head football coach at Riverside Military Academy, would like nothing more than to see the franchise he spent four full seasons playing for, including being as back-up running back on the franchise’s NFC Championship team in 1998, bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

“I spent four seasons playing for Atlanta and chose to go there,” Downs said. “I’ve settled in the area, see a lot of guys on a regular basis that I played with, so I can’t help but get excited.”

Downs says he typically attends two games per season in person, which was the case again this year with trips to the Georgia Dome for games against the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. Since the end of the high school football season at Riverside Military, Downs has turned his attention to watching his children in their own athletic activities.

He didn’t go after tickets for today’s game. Should Atlanta make the Super Bowl, it may be a different story.

“If they make it to the Super Bowl, I may have to re-access the situation,” Downs said.

Since this is Atlanta’s first trip to the NFC Championship game since 1998, naturally questions arise comparing the team then and now. According to Downs, there are more differences than similarities. In fact, he had the same conversation just this week with former Falcons defensive back Ray Buchanan, a teammate on the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, who currently coaches Downs’ son in youth league basketball in Gwinnett County.

He says the most glaring difference is the expectations for the Falcons in 1998 and today. In 1998, Atlanta snuck up on everyone with a relatively easy route to the NFC West title and a 14-2 regular season mark.

In 1998, Atlanta’s only two wins by less than seven points came in both of its first two games.

“We blew out a lot of teams in 1998,” Downs said. “When we got up in games, we put them away.”

This season, Atlanta has taken its fans on a roller coaster of emotion, none more so than last Sunday’s 30-28 win against the Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome. Matt Bryant kicked a 48-yard field goal with only eight seconds left in the game for Atlanta to avoid letting a 20-point halftime lead go to waste. Bryant has won the game three times this season on a field goal in the final seconds, while Atlanta has had six of its 14 wins come by six points or less.

“I wonder if this team has that killer instinct and can bury a team when they get them down,” Downs said.

In terms of talent, Downs feels like the current crop of Falcons is clearly superior to the 1998 team where he played behind Jamal Anderson at running back. This season, Atlanta is led at the top by Pro Bowl pick Matt Ryan at quarterback with his 4,719 passing yards and 32 touchdown throws, along with wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, both well over 1,000 yards already this season.

Downs says that Atlanta has done a good job under current management of building the franchise through the draft and keeping players. Ryan, Jones and White were all high draft picks in the past seven seasons by current general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and have all turned into home-run picks.

“This Falcons team is younger than we were in 1998, and they’ve done a good job building the franchise up from the draft,” Downs said.

In contrast, the 1998 Atlanta Falcons were a mesh of standouts at the tail-end of their career and veteran journeymen. Most of the players, including linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Jessie Tuggle, quarterback Chris Chandler, wide receiver Terance Mathis and defensive backs Buchanan and Eugene Robinson were closer to the end than beginning of their careers.

However, it was a formula that worked to produce the Falcons’ lone Super Bowl appearance in its first 48 seasons.

“We had veterans all around in 1998,” Downs said.

Downs believes that San Francisco will be the biggest road block to Atlanta bring home the Super Bowl title.

“I think this Falcons team has everything going in their favor,” Downs said.

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