HOUSTON • The Atlanta Falcons were born in the year of the first Super Bowl and 51 years later hope to celebrate their first National Football League title with a victory over the New England Patriots today.
It has been a long journey to the top of the NFL mountain, but the Falcons soared this season on the strength of a high-powered offence led by quarterback Matt Ryan that topped the league in scoring with plenty to spare.
Bolstered by a deep receiving corps headed by big, strong and fast Julio Jones and a powerful backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Ryan steered Atlanta to an average of 33.8 points a game.
"When you're surrounded by really good players and guys who can make plays at any time, it makes your job a lot easier," said Ryan, favoured to win the league's most valuable player award. "I'm really fortunate to be surrounded by an awesome supporting cast."
It all came together for a Falcons team who underwent a forced reconstruction by owner Arthur Blanks, co-founder of the Home Depot hardware store chain, following the imprisonment of former star quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting ring.
Vick, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, was arguably the NFL's most exciting player as a strong-armed thrower who was often the fastest man on the field.
He thrilled the fans and helped Atlanta reach the play-offs in 2002 and 2004 before his plunge from grace and 2007 incarceration at Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas. In 2008, Atlanta's new general manager Thomas Dimitroff selected Ryan with the third overall pick in the draft.
Ryan, nicknamed "Matty Ice", led Atlanta to back-to-back winning seasons in his first two years, the only time the club had accomplished that in their first 43 years and they went on to five straight winning seasons, including four play-off berths.
Two losing seasons followed and coach Mike Smith was replaced by Dan Quinn, who won a Super Bowl ring as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
Now Ryan, who threw 38 touchdown passes to a record 13 different receivers this season and had just seven intercepted, can jump into the elite category with a Super win.
"Playing with Matt, I know for a fact, he craves a Super Bowl," said former tight end Tony Gonzalez, now a broadcaster for NBC, who played his last five seasons with Atlanta.
"Absolutely it will change the national perception of him. And I think it will change his perception of himself."
Ryan exuded confidence. "I believe in our team," he said. "I believe in our coaching staff, and I believe that I'm in a good space to get myself ready to play. And I think the combination of those factors make you feel really comfortable."