ATLANTA — Bart Starr. Lambeau Field. Ray Nitschke. Titletown USA. Reggie White. Heck, they even named the Super Bowl trophy after Green Bay’s most famous coach.
Yep, the Packers are just oozing with tradition.
The Atlanta Falcons? Not so much.
“We’re fairly new on the block,” said Roddy White, the Falcons’ Pro Bowl receiver. “We’re still trying to prove ourselves. You’ve got to go out there and win playoff games. That’s what this league is all about.”
The Falcons (13-3) are the top seed in the NFC playoffs heading into tonight’s divisional game against Green Bay (11-6). Atlanta merely needs to win two more games — both at the Georgia Dome, where the team is 20-4 over the last three seasons — to reach the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.
Up first, Atlanta will have to get by a franchise with a much more impressive resume over the long haul.
The Packers have won a record 12 NFL titles, three more than any other franchise, a bounty that includes three Super Bowls victories. Compare that with the Falcons, who have managed just four division titles in 45 years and lost their lone Super Bowl appearance in 1999. In fact, Atlanta had never put together back-to-back winning seasons until its current run of three in a row.
When it comes to star power, Green Bay is about as good as it gets. The franchise boasts 21 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and surely has at least one more on the way with Brett Favre, who actually began his career with the Falcons but was traded away in one of the game’s great personnel blunders. The Packers’ list of greats includes coach Vince Lombardi, whose influence on the game was so profound the NFL put his name on its championship trophy shortly after his death in 1970.
No one has considered naming a trophy after anyone from the Falcons. Heck, the team has yet to send even one player to Canton; the best it can do is Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald, two Hall of Famers who played briefly for Atlanta late in their careers. And when it comes to coaches, the team with the odd-looking bird logo can’t come close to Lombardi or Curly Lambeau, who guided the Packers to their first six NFL titles in the 1930s and ’40s.
OK, the Falcons did hire one of Lombardi’s assistants, Norb Hecker, as their first head coach in 1966. But his record was a very un-Vince-like 4-26-1, which pretty much sums up the divide between these two franchises.
“That organization over there, they’ve been doing it for a long time,” Roddy White said. “They’ve pretty much got the Super Bowl trophy named after their squad and their coach. So, they’ve got a lot of good tradition. They’ve done a lot of good things in this league.”
The Packers insist they’re looking forward, but there’s no doubt they’ve got an eye on their legacy. Green Bay hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 1996 season. Longtime Packers such as receiver Donald Driver figure that’s long enough.
“We all know exactly what sits in front of us,” Driver said. “We want that trophy. It’s named after us. We need to get it back home, where it belongs.”
Even though he grew up in Georgia, Packers defensive lineman Jarius Wynn never really cheered for the Falcons. There wasn’t much reason, given their track record.
“It would have been REAL tough to be a Falcons fan,” Wynn said.
He played his college ball for the Georgia Bulldogs, a team with plenty of history and titles. Still, it didn’t match up to what he found in Green Bay.
“We had tradition, going back to Herschel Walker and winning the national championship,” Wynn said of his college team. “But here, it’s a whole new level.”
Thankfully for the Falcons, Saturday night’s game won’t be played in a history book. They’ve earned home-field advantage for only the second time and intend to take advantage of it. They won’t have to worry about Lombardi calling one of his famous sweeps. Or Starr sneaking into a frigid end zone for the winning touchdown.
This game will be played indoors in the 72-degree comfort of the Georgia Dome, contested by players who weren’t even born when those guys were dominating pro football, in front of a mostly red-clad crowd that has helped turn the Falcons into a virtually unbeatable squad on its own field.
“None of that matters,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “When those lights come on, those players from the past ain’t playing that night. It’s just about who’s going to come out and play ball that night.”
Atlanta has played some good ball ever since the new regime — general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith — took over in 2008. Quickly bouncing back from a miserable season in which franchise quarterback Michael Vick went to prison and coach Bobby Petrino abandoned the team after just 13 games, the Falcons made the playoffs as a wild card in Year 1 of what everyone figured would be a multiseason rebuilding job.
Injuries scuttled a return trip to the playoffs in 2009, but the Falcons removed another stigma from their sad history by winning the final three games to go 9-7 — the first consecutive winning seasons for the franchise.
Now, it’s three in a row, with the best record in the NFC for good measure. Anything less than a Super Bowl title will be considered a disappointment for a team loaded with offensive stars (White, quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner) and plenty of up-and-comers on defense.
“That sure would look good on a banner in the Dome,” Moore said.
Even with all their success, the Falcons still feel a bit overlooked and certainly under-appreciated. Sure, they’re favored against the Packers, but plenty of people are picking Green Bay in an upset.
“I can’t even turn on the TV without someone saying we’re going to be an underdog. We’re a 13-3 underdog,” Falcons Pro Bowl fullback Ovie Mughelli said. “I love it. I love being the underdog. I love not getting all the credit. Force them to respect you out on the field with your play.”
That’s the way to build a tradition.