In a sports calendar year that saw the Cleveland Cavaliers win an NBA title and the Chicago Cubs win a World Series, it sure seemed plausible that Atlanta’s 21-year championship drought could also come to an end.
And through three-and-a-half quarters of Sunday’s thrilling Super Bowl, it sure seemed that way.
Atlanta, however, closed Sunday evening suffering the same kind of sports fate it has somehow grown accustomed to. This time, the New England Patriots broke the hearts of every Atlanta Falcons football fan with a 25-point rally to ultimately win Super Bowl LI 34-28.
A blown lead. Opportunities to put a game away squandered. Heartbreak.
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That has come to define sports not only in Atlanta but through the state of Georgia. The city’s lone professional sports title came in 1995, when the Atlanta Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Otherwise, the only two national or world championships in modern sports the state can claim are Georgia’s 1980 college football title and Georgia Tech’s share of the crown in 1990.
There have been some really good teams to compete for championships, too, which probably makes the heartbreak even worse. In sticking with the theme of heartache, here are the five most crushing championship losses in the modern history of sports in the state of Georgia.
1983 Sugar Bowl – No title in Walker’s final game
Georgia was in the midst of the best three-year run in program history. The Bulldogs won the 1980 national title and reached the Sugar Bowl a year later with an outside chance of capturing another. It didn’t happen, but it set up a great 1982 regular season that resulted in running back Herschel Walker winning the Heisman Trophy.
Ranked in the top 10 all year long, Georgia took care of business against most opponents, with only four of its games being decided by one score. But the Bulldogs faced a tough opponent in No. 2 Penn State, setting up a true national championship game in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
Georgia rallied to cut Penn State’s lead to only three points in the third quarter and had plenty of momentum working in its favor. But early in the fourth quarter, Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge launched a 47-yard bomb off of a play-action fake to receiver Gregg Garrity, who got behind the Georgia secondary. Garrity dove slightly to make the grab and fell into the end zone. The score put Penn State up by 10, with the Nittany Lions going on to win 27-23.
Walker was expected to come back for what would have been a remarkable senior season. But he ended up signing with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, making that championship loss his final game in a Georgia uniform.
1991 World Series – ‘Worst to first’ team falls in seven
In 1990, the Atlanta Braves posted the MLB’s worst record at 65-97. Therefore, no one expected much out of the them in 1991. But up-and-comers David Justice, Jeff Blauser and Ron Gant helped fuel a much improved batting unit while pitchers John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery helped form one of the best rotations in all of baseball. The Braves went from worst to first in the NL West and finished the regular season with a 94-68 record.
The Braves seemed destined, too, especially after its thrilling seven-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Trailing three games to two, the Braves won the final two games of the NLCS to head to the World Series and face the Minnesota Twins.
That series proved epic, with Atlanta taking a 3-2 lead in games after dropping the first two. But the Twins won Game 6 with a Kirby Puckett home run in the 11th inning. In Game 7, Smoltz and Twins pitcher Jack Morris were both brilliant, with Morris going the whole way. Nine innings wouldn’t be enough as it became the second consecutive game to go to extra innings. In the 10th, however, Dan Gladden led off with a double and, following an out, Braves pitcher Alejandro Pena avoided Puckett and Kent Hrbek went a pair of intentional walks. Pinch-hitter Gene Larkin then hit a single to left-center field that scored Gladden, breaking the hearts of Atlanta sports fans everywhere.
1996 World Series – Braves blow two-game lead to Yankees
While the 1991 World Series was much better from a game-by-game standpoint, the 1996 World Series was more depressing for Atlanta. Sure, it was coming off the city’s lone professional sports title in 1995. But this team was arguably the best Atlanta had ever fielded. In addition to Smoltz, Glavine and Avery was Greg Maddux, who won NL Cy Young Awards from 1992-95. But Maddux didn’t win it in 1996 because Smoltz did. The batting lineup featured Marquis Grissom, Mark Lemke, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Jermaine Dye and Jeff Blauser. Oh, and during the final stretch of the season, Andruw Jones was called up and introduced to the big leagues.
In the playoffs, the Braves swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild card round 3-0 and then went seven games to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals.
But it sure looked like the Braves would defend their 1995 title. Atlanta marched into Yankee Stadium and defeated the New York Yankees 12-1 in Game 1 and 4-0 in Game 2. It seemed like Atlanta had the makings of capping a memorable season with a second consecutive championship.
Instead, the Yankees took the third game 5-2 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves then gave up a six-run lead in Game 4 to lose 8-6. The Braves then lost its third in a row at home 1-0 in Game 5.
A two-game lead was squandered and the Yankees’ dynasty began after their 3-2 win at Yankee Stadium in Game 6. Atlanta was left wondering how it squandered a 2-0 lead with perhaps its best team in franchise history.
2012 SEC Championship – Five yards short
When Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown to give Georgia a 21-10 lead over Alabama with 6:31 to play in the third quarter of the 2012 SEC championship game, it sure seemed like the Bulldogs had positioned themselves in a great spot to punch a ticket to the BCS national championship game.
What transpired from there turned into the greatest SEC title game ever played, with Georgia coming out on the losing end.
But how Georgia lost remains tough for the players and coaches involved — as well as the fans — to deal with. Trailing by four with 1:08 to play in the game, quarterback Aaron Murray led Georgia down the field on a masterful drive, with chunk plays to Tavarres King and Arthur Lynch. After Lynch’s 26-yard catch-and-run got the Bulldogs to the 8-yard line, Georgia elected to hurry to the line to run a play instead of spiking it. Murray took the snap and wanted a back-shoulder fade to Malcolm Mitchell.
Alabama’s C.J. Mosley tipped the ball, and it fell into Chris Conley’s hands. Conley then slipped at the 5 as time ran out.
The most depressing part about it for Georgia fans is the fact everyone outside of South Bend, Indiana, and Notre Dame circles nationally, knew this SEC championship game essentially was for the national title. Alabama went on to blow out the Fighting Irish in the BCS national championship game while Georgia was rewarded with a Capital One Bowl matchup against Nebraska, which the Bulldogs won.
Super Bowl LI – Patriots 34, Falcons 28
It doesn’t get any more painful than this for Atlanta fans.
The Falcons were up 28-3 in the third quarter and still held a 28-9 lead early in the fourth. Before Sunday’s epic Super Bowl, no team had won a Super Bowl trailing by more than 10. Yet Tom Brady, who probably cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, led the Patriots to an overtime win after trailing by 25 points.
Much about this game will be argued, debated and talked about for years.
After a brilliant first-half performance from Atlanta’s defense, it became too tired and couldn’t keep up with New England’s hurried attack. Even so, the Falcons had a golden opportunity to put the game away and prevent Brady from winning a fifth ring.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s decision to throw two passes after the greatest catch of Julio Jones’ career, with less than four minutes to play and in field-goal range, is borderline indefensible. Down at the New England 22 after Jones’ remarkable toe-tap reception, Atlanta ran once and lost a yard. Needing the clock to run and a field goal to go up by two scores, the Falcons did what they couldn’t afford to do. Matt Ryan took a sack, and Jake Matthews was flagged for a hold (although officials missed a New England facemask penalty that would have allowed Atlanta to re-do the down).
A subsequent incompletion led to a punt and New England’s game-tying drive. The Patriots won the coin toss and needed eight plays to score a touchdown to win Super Bowl LI in overtime.
Of all of the Atlanta heartache the city and state has endured with sports, this game, in the most popular U.S. sport, summed up what it is like to grow up a fan of a Peach State team.