There has been a different feeling around the Atlanta Falcons this past week as they prepared for the franchise’s fourth trip to the NFC championship game.
The Falcons are 1-2 in NFC title games, losing most recently to San Francisco during the 2012-13 season. Atlanta’s lone Super Bowl trip came after a win over Minnesota in the 1998-99 NFC title game.
Still, those inside the organization see a different organization this time around, and they believe that change in culture head coach Dan Quinn has brought will be key at 3:05 p.m. on Sunday against Green Bay in the NFC championship game. If that belief pays off, the Falcons will head to Houston for their second Super Bowl (they lost to Denver in their first).
“We are a complete team now. We were good. It was just like, ‘Oh we’re here. We’re here.’ We really didn’t know how to handle it,” wide receiver Julio Jones of the 2012 loss to the 49ers. “All along, Coach has been doing a tremendous job for us and preparing us in the offseason. We are a great team, and you’ve got to know we’re a great team. It’s just sticking together no matter what someone says about the club or what’s going on.
“We just kept everything in-house and just kept working for each other. Quinn has let us be a player-led team. Just those little things to make the brotherhood stronger for us. That’s why I feel like we are a better team now because a lot of people say I’m going to go out and play for this guy. We really do.”
The Falcons are set to play their final game at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, and the city of Atlanta has taken notice. The stadium held a sellout crowd of 71,228 and was nearly deafening throughout the Falcons divisional round victory over Seattle. Quinn is pushing for the noise to be amplified yet again as the Packers and MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers come to town.
Jonathan Babineaux, who has been with the Falcons’ organization since 2005 and will soon become a free agent, realizes the excitement within the fan base has played a role in driving the culture change.
“I think everybody in Atlanta is very excited right now,” Babineaux said. “The opportunity we did have a few years ago, we weren’t able to cash in. These guys are very well brought into it and what Coach Quinn has brought to this city and this organization. We’ll approach this week like any other, go out and have fun in the process, then let it loose on Sunday.”
Facing San Francisco in 2012-13, Atlanta had just come off a 30-28 victory over Seattle to get to the title game. It was another back-and-forth game, but the Falcons fell short 28-24 and missed their chance to play in New Orleans against Baltimore (which defeated the 49ers). Babineaux, who joins a group of five other active players on this season’s roster who played in 2012, knows what that feeling is like and hopes to avoid a repeat.
“It was a bad feeling,” Babineaux said. “Being so close to the ultimate goal you have as a player, and to see the team that you lost to being able to move on to the Super Bowl. It’s something you always remember, and hopefully we can take advantage of this opportunity.”