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Zopf: Falcons' fans deserved another home game
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ATLANTA—For four minutes the atmosphere in the Georgia Dome was anything short of euphoric.
Down by three in the fourth quarter, Jerious Norwood reeled off a 45-yard touchdown run to give the Falcons the lead and, at the time, an apparent NFC South title.

Just as Norwood was exiting the end zone, the scoreboard at the Georgia Dome showed something that everyone in attendance had been waiting for all game: Saints 31, Panthers 30.

If the Saints could hold on, the Falcons — the same Falcons that went 4-12 last year — would be the NFC South champions.

The crowd could sense the remarkable accomplishment that was about to take place. During the ensuing Rams possession the 64,617 people in attendance were louder than they were all game.

Louder than the smattering of boos that filled the Dome after Michael Turner’s fumble was not overturned by the official. Louder than when Roddy White — who set a Falcons single-season record this year — caught an 18-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 10-point lead.

And they were louder than when Norwood ran a kick off back 92 yards to set up a touchdown.

That’s because the cheers that followed the final Norwood score and display of the Saints-Panthers game were not ones of supporting your team, they were cheers of victory, of happiness, of “I can’t believe this is actually happening.”

Could this team that was left for dead after their star quarterback left them for prison and their head coach left them for college, rise from the ashes and win the division?

For four minutes it was possible.

But just as Matt Ryan was taking a knee to secure the Falcons’ 31-27 victory over the Rams, Carolina’s John Kasey was nailing a 42-yard field goal with six seconds remaining to give the Panthers, and not the Falcons, the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

And that’s too bad.

Don’t get me wrong, the fact that the Falcons are simply in the playoffs is something to be commended, if not placed in the Hall of Fame of greatest franchise turnarounds ever. But for the fans that have been with this team through thick and thin, they deserved another game, if not several more games at the
Georgia Dome.

All game long Sunday various Falcons were seen on the jumbotron delivering messages to the Falcon faithful. Messages like, “We’re glad you stuck with us,” and “Thank you for believing in us.”

And every time those messages appeared the fans cheered. They wanted to show that they too were appreciative of the players, the coaches and the organization as a whole. And after what happened to this team last season, the gratitude shared between fans and franchise is something that is even more remarkable than the Falcons turnaround from the laughingstock of the NFL, to an 11-5 team bound for the playoffs.

Read that last line again. The Falcons are 11-5 and bound for the playoffs.

That concept prior to the season was laughable. Now, not only is it not funny, it’s entirely true and with a road playoff game next week against the Arizona Cardinals, these Falcons have a chance to improve on that 11-win total.

“We’re now in the tournament and we’re really excited about that opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after the win. “We took care of what we had to get done and we’re just very excited about having the opportunity to continue to play football games.”

Sure the season ended with the bittersweet disappointment of not winning the NFC South, but the truth of the matter is, that title simply would have been icing on the cake. Besides, the Falcons and their fans need not fret over the fact that they’ll be hitting the road through the entirety of the NFL playoffs, all they have to do is travel back one year in time and look at what the last No. 5 seed from the NFC did in the playoffs.

In 2007, the New York Giants entered the playoffs as the fifth seed and no one gave them a chance to win the Super Bowl, yet they did.

After the game, Smith echoed that thought when he was asked what his playoff message was to his team. His answer? “Why not us?”

“As we’ve seen in the past, it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded,” said Ryan, who stated that not winning the NFC South title was not letdown. “We’re just happy we have a chance.”

Sure history hasn’t been kind to this franchise, but with the way this season has played out, there’s no reason why this group of Falcons can’t make recent history repeat itself.

It’s just too bad the deserving fans at the Georgia Dome won’t have the opportunity to see it live.
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