For many, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” a.k.a. the 1999 St. Louis Rams, will serve as a watershed moment in their NFL fandom. That team was the perfect amalgamation of so many fascinating and important storylines that it was impossible not to root for them as long as they weren’t facing off against your team, in which case, fear overcame admiration.
The ’99 Rams were an underdog story, having gone 4-12 a year earlier and they hadn’t posted a winning season since 1989, when they were still in Los Angeles; They had a quarterback who went on to win MVP honors that season despite quite literally bagging groceries a few years earlier after he was cut by the Green Bay Packers; an offense – fueled by Kurt Warner, breakout dual-threat running back Marshall Faulk, and Pro Bowl receiver Isaac Bruce – that led the league in points and yards; an offense that in 1999, also poured gasoline on the fire that was fantasy football, as the internet began to take on a much greater influence in our lives, and everyone wanted Warner, Faulk, Bruce and Torry Holt to make them the inaugural champion of their league; and an underrated defense featuring the NFL leader in sacks, Kevin Carter, who registered 17 of them that season. The Rams emerged from the pile of the Super Bowl-winless to defeat the Tennessee Titans in the Georgia Dome and etch a place in history that just feels a little more special than most championship teams.
Take a closer look at the Super Bowl LI matchup on Sunday and you’ll begin to see dramatic similarities to that team: The Atlanta Falcons. There’s good reason to believe they’ll be your next Super Bowl champions, and maybe “The Greatest Show on FieldTurf.”
The Falcons had a modest 11-5 record during the regular season, but they share many of the same traits that Warner’s St. Louis team had 17 years ago. Quarterback Matt Ryan led the NFL in passer rating and yards per attempt and appears to be a lock for MVP. Dual-threat running back Devonta Freeman is not often regarded as “Faulk-lite” but he had over 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns this season while splitting time with Tevin Coleman. And Vic Beasley’s 15.5 sacks, like Carter, led the league and provided a defensive boost for a team that is only known for its offense. No team since the 1999 Rams have won the Super Bowl in the same season that they had the MVP. No team since the 1999 Rams have won the Super Bowl in the same season that they had the NFL lead in sacks.
Atlanta can end both of those streaks on Sunday. So why don’t we think of them in the same regard as “The Greatest Show”?
Teams do not become legendary before they win the Super Bowl. In order to achieve the status that will make you notable for years to come – the 1969 New York Jets, 1985 Chicago Bears, 1999 St. Louis Rams, 2009 New Orleans Saints can all attest to this – you have to win the last game of the season. The Falcons will be no exception. Lose and you’re a disappointment.
Win and you’re a nickname.
Atlanta will win the Super Bowl because they have an offense that’s as unpredictable as it is talented. In previous seasons under the old regime, when they still had Ryan, Julio Jones and Freeman, there wasn’t much guessing to do for opposing defenses. Even when Jones had a field day, at least there wasn’t anything else to worry about. Not the case under head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, as Ryan hit an NFL-record 13 different players with receiving touchdowns while the offense quietly finishing third in rushing touchdowns. Shutting down Jones, who had just six touchdowns while the Falcons scored a league-leading 540 points (tied for seventh-most ever with the 2000 Rams, 14 points more than the ’99 version) is important, but not vital. The New England Patriots will gameplan against them as well as any team has all year, but still only five teams all season have kept Atlanta under 30 points.
The Falcons are 1-4 in those games, the Patriots had the number one scoring defense this season, but they have not faced a QB like Ryan.
The 31-year-old has gone from fringe All-Pro to fringe Hall of Fame thanks to an NFL record 9.3 yards per attempt and a postseason performance that has so far seen him throw seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two blowout victories over the Seahawks and Packers. Ryan will win MVP, deservedly so, but without the fanfare that Warner enjoyed in 1999 despite superior numbers. Is that because they came from such different backgrounds or simply due to the fact that QBs are posting significantly-inflated stats than they were two decades ago? Both answer are correct, but it shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of either player.
The same could go for Freeman and Faulk, Jones and Bruce, but both teams also have overlooked defenses. Bill Belichick won’t take Atlanta’s defense for granted, but many fans are doing just that.
As mentioned earlier, the Rams had the league-leader in sacks with Carter, just as the Falcons do with Beasley. The former sixth overall pick is easily the biggest name on the defense, but is hardly alone and still may not be the most important. Linebacker Deion Jones is a dark horse for Defensive Rookie of the Year after posting 106 tackles, three interceptions, two defensive touchdowns, 11 passes defensed, and one forced fumble. And rookie safety Keanu Neal models his game after Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and could be on his way to surpassing the All-Pro in many respects.
En total, the defense struggled in 2016, but like the ’99 Rams, who ranked fourth in points allowed and featured Carter, Grant Wistrom, London Fletcher, Todd Lyght, D’Marco Farr,and Super Bowl hero Mike Jones, Atlanta is banking on their defense playing up to their ceiling in the Super Bowl rather than focusing on the fact that they ranked 27th in points allowed. A strong defensive performance against Tom Brady could be just as effective as a strong offensive performance against New England’s defense, if not more so. Don’t be surprised if the MVP of the game comes from that side of the ball for the Falcons, because they have plenty of talent there, even if it’s taking a backseat to “The Latest Greatest Show.”
Because of that, the Atlanta Falcons should actually be considered the favorite in Super Bowl LI. They are the better offense. They have a very talented defense. And they bare a striking resemblance to a team that might be the most memorable of the last 25 years. You may not think of the Falcons in those terms right now, but that’s just because they haven’t won the Super Bowl yet. If they do, then the perspective changes dramatically. Think of how the Rams won their first Super Bowl and changed the narrative on that franchise. Or how the Patriots won their first Super Bowl two years later against St. Louis and also changed the narrative on their franchise.
Atlanta’s incredible season is either going to fade away as “Fun Fact” if they lose, or completely change how we view the 2016 Falcons if they win. Then the nicknames and storylines will take shape and etch themselves in NFL history for as long as we’re still watching football.