ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are well aware of just how desperate this city is for its first Super Bowl championship.
Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.
“The city is hungry,” the Atlanta linebacker said. “You can feel it when you’re in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, ‘Go Falcons.’ Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black.”
The Falcons will be playing in the NFC title game for the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers today, a matchup of teams that come into this game from very different historical perspectives.
For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise’s glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and ’90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
The Falcons? They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Heck, they’ve only gotten that far one time, after the 1998 season, when a charismatic bunch known as the “Dirty Birds” shockingly made a run to the big game – and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway’s finale.
“They’re trying to recapture greatness,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We’re trying to break the ceiling on it.”
While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC’s top seed and playing at home, they are a four-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week’s rout over the Green Bay Packers.
The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed.
Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history.
It wasn’t so much that he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns. What really stood out was what he did when he kept the ball. Kaepernick scored twice – including a 56-yarder – and finished with 181 yards rushing, a postseason record for a quarterback.
“He’s super fast, athletic and he can throw the ball,” 49ers running back LaMichael James said. “But once he takes off, he’s faster than a lot of running backs and linebackers. He’s an incredible athlete.”
While certainly aware of their team’s proud background, most of these San Francisco players were molded by adversity. The 49ers went eight consecutive seasons without a winning record or trip to the playoffs until Harbaugh arrived in 2011 from nearby Stanford and immediately turned things around – taking last year’s team to the NFC title game, where the Niners lost to the New York Giants, 20-17.
The Falcons are coming off their first playoff win since the 2004 season, erasing a major stumbling block with their 30-28 comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn’t nearly as easy as the 49ers’ victory.
After squandering a 20-point lead in what would’ve been the greatest fourth-quarter collapse in the playoffs, Matt Ryan brought Atlanta back in the final 30 seconds. Living up to his nickname “Matty Ice,” the fifth-year quarterback completed two long passes to set up Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds left.
“It’s a good thing to get that first win out of the way,” Ryan said. “I think that everyone did a great job of not letting it distract us, but it can be distracting.”
While Kaepernick is just getting started on what looks to be a hugely promising career, Tony Gonzalez is winding things down.
The Atlanta tight end is already assured of a spot in the Hall of Fame, having caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except Rice, and he revolutionized his often-obscure position. Despite a huge season in which he led the Falcons in catches, the 36-year-old has repeatedly said he’s 95 percent sure this will be his final season.
Like Ryan, he erased the one big blotch on his record by winning his first playoff game last weekend, making the final catch to set up Bryant’s winning kick.
But Gonzalez would really like to go out with a ring.
Two wins to go.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “Win a championship and get out of here.”