Before the game they booed the bad guy. By halftime they booed everybody. By the fourth quarter they were headed for the doors.
Good thing, too. Most Falcons fans didn’t want to see what was about to happen.
If 2008 was the team’s karmic atonement for the wrongs they suffered at the hands of villains like Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino, how do we explain 2009?
When the day started, Atlanta was one game out of the playoffs with a chance to wipe away that deficit with a win over Philadelphia. A year ago, when good vibes were prevalent and redemption seemed preordained, this is kind of game the Falcons won, somehow.
But Sunday, redemption belonged to Atlanta’s heretofore disgraced former quarterback.
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened. It’s sufficient to say, Vick reclaimed, re-electrified, the Georgia Dome and the fans who’ve yet to truly say goodbye.
For three quarters, Vick was booed lustily at every turn, but those fans either left or changed their minds, because as the Eagles were dashing the Falcons’ chance at a win and possibly a shot at the playoffs in the second half, the fans chanting Vick’s name far exceeded the rest.
And for four plays and one drive in the fourth quarter, the city and quarterback were reunited.
When he looked deep to pass, they rose to their feet. When he broke from the pocket, the air in the building was charged. And when he threw his first touchdown pass since 2006, it seemed like old times.
He left the field blowing kisses to a standing ovation.
The only problem: instead of putting the Falcons on the scoreboard like he did back then, Vick was helping to bury them.
The difference a year makes is staggering.
In December 2008, Vick was sitting in a federal prison in Kansas, while the Falcons closed out their improbable regular season on a three-game winning streak en route to a playoff berth.
Back then, a day like Sunday was unthinkable. Matt Ryan could do no wrong, Michael Turner seemed impervious to injury, and Jason Elam could still kick. And better yet, all luck was good luck it seemed.
Flash forward a year, and five starters missed Sunday’s game due to injury and two more left before the game was done.
The Falcons haven’t been eliminated from the playoffs and they could still be the first group in franchise history with back-to-back winning seasons. But where all once went right, now almost nothing does.
Sunday’s loss was the first at the Georgia Dome in more than a year, and only the second in coach Mike Smith’s tenure, and it took a last-second score to avoid the first shutout since 2003 and first ever shutout in the Dome.
The Falcons didn’t lose consecutive games last year — avoiding losing streaks was integral to the process of creating a winner. This season they’ve endured back-to-back losses twice already, and if it happens again, the season is probably shot. Making matters grimmer, New Orleans comes to town next week still streaking at 12-0.
Of course, the Falcons could win. Especially if Ryan, Turner and the other starters return, the talent difference between the two teams is more a creek than a gulf.
But the way things have gone for Atlanta this year, it feels like the team is swimming against the tide of a cruel fate.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor at The Times. Contact him at email@example.com.