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Happy 45th Birthday, Atlanta Falcons: The Play That Broke The Curse

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June 30, 2010 marks the Atlanta Falcons' first birthday as a team with consecutive winning seasons. Frame by frame, this is the story of the 44-year curse and the moment it ended.

2009, week 17. Atlanta Falcons (8-7), Tampa Bay Buccanneers (3-12). 17-10, Bucs ball on the Falcons 35. 1st and 10, 4:25 to go. Two-wide, I formation, strong side right. 4-3 under. Basic tackle football. Cornerback Christopher Owens backpedals away from his assignment, Maurice Stovall. 5-foot-10 (on a Beijing phonebook) Brent Grimes has drawn 6-foot-1 Antonio Bryant, who scored a touchdown over the 5-foot-10 Owens' single coverage just five minutes ago (and a 42-yard score in week 12 with 5-foot-9 Tye Hill defending solo). Quarterback Josh Freeman counts seven in the box, plus blitz-prone safety Erik Coleman creeping in. Coleman usually blitzes about twice per game, but hasn't done so all day today. Unless Coleman is bluffing, either Bryant or Stovall will have one man to beat and a major height advantage. Freeman's already passed for 44 yards in 4 passes on this drive. Grimes watches Freeman.

After reaching the 2004 NFC Championship Game and starting 2005 with a 6-2 record, Atlanta head coach Jim Mora, Jr. mocked Falcons legends Jeff Van Note and Mike Kenn for failing to ever post back-to-back winning seasons. Mora's Birds went 2-6 down the stretch, losing their last three games and finishing 8-8.

Max protect. Bryant: go. Grimes plays Bryant's inside shoulder. Will backer Stephen Nicholas delays for a moment as a formality, monitoring the obligatory play fake to halfback Cadillac Williams, who's averaging two yards per carry today. Nicholas drops to a middle zone. For the past three snaps, second-year left guard Jeremy Zuttah has been filling in at left tackle for nicked-up Donald Penn. Zuttah's primary concern, sack-starved John Abraham, drops into pass coverage, something he usually does about twice per game, but hasn't done all day today.

Fresh off a 9-6-1 2002, the first road team to ever win a postseason game in Lambeau was picked by Sports Illustrated to win the 2003 NFC South crown. Madden cover boy Michael Vick suffered a broken leg in the first preseason game, and the Falcons were 2-10 by the time he returned.

Freeman looks up to see Coleman wasn't bluffing. Tight end John Gilmore has tied up Mike Peterson's blitz attempt, but defensive end Kroy Biermann's inside stunt has left a huge gap for Coleman. Williams has taken a breath too long to reset from the play fake and is in no position to pick up the safety blitz. 'Lac latches onto a shoulder. Zuttah has registered Abraham's retreat and re-calibrated onto all-world defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who popped Freeman on the previous play and sacked him in week 12. Zuttah's already given up one step too many.

Despite a quarterback controversy between Vick and Chris Chandler, the Falcons were 7-7 going into 2001's final two weeks. Winning both games would have set up the first half of a winning pair, ripe for 2002's successful run. The team lost both games.

Pro Bowl center Jeff Faine expects assistance with quick-footed defensive tackle Chauncey Davis, but his left guard, Shawn Murphy, is an undrafted free agent playing the third snap of his NFL career. The Falcons are blitzing for the first time in over a quarter -- head swirling, Murphy is frozen. Davis barrels past, primed for his second sack of the day. Fullback Chris Pressley, who's starting only his third game, ignores Davis and filters all the way back to the line of scrimmage to pick up Curtis Lofton. Zuttah can only salvage by riding Babineaux into the ground; unfortunately, the available turf is right under Freeman's feet. Coleman shrugs off Williams' hold. Three Falcons are now within one half-second of Freeman. Off-balance, Freeman fires deep to Bryant.

After workhorse Jamal Anderson's 410 carries led the 14-2 Dirty Birds on their first-ever Super Bowl run in 1998, Anderson was injured and out for the season on his 19th carry of 1999. The Falcons finished 5-11.

Stovall: 15-yard in. He's open for a first down into the red zone plus YAC -- break one small cornerback's tackle and duck the stocky Nicholas, and it's first and goal. But Freeman didn't have time to consider Stovall. However, free safety Thomas DeCoud did. Remembering Stovall's 27-yard catch on the previous drive, DeCoud has played center field instead of giving Grimes an umbrella with Bryant.

Winning five of their last six games, Dan Reeves' first Falcons team nearly provided the opening act for 1998's dream campaign. Oh, but they also lost seven of their first eight. 7-9.

Bryant knows something's wrong. He attempts to work inside, alerting Grimes that the ball is on its way.

The 1996 squad, led by returning 4,000-yard passer Jeff George, had a chance to follow up 1995's 9-7 playoff run. After week 3's nationally televised sideline scrap with coach June Jones, George was benched for the rest of the 3-13 season.

Had Freeman had time to set his feet and deliver a pass to Bryant's outside shoulder, the shorter, slimmer Grimes would have to work just to interfere, let alone compete for the ball.

The 1994 Falcons were 6-6 going into a week 13 division matchup with San Francisco. Steve Young's 49ers had beaten Atlanta 42-3 in week 7, providing extra motivation for the wildcard-hungry Birds. It wasn't enough -- they lost 50-14, reeled into two more losses and a 7-9 season, and isolated the following year as the sole success of Jones' tenure.

Their feet carrying them toward the end zone, both players realize Bryant is now the defender.

In 1991, Jerry Glanville's 2-Legit-2-Quit, Back-In-Black, MC-Hammer-on-the-sidelines circus bonanza somehow broke a ten year streak of losing seasons. Prime Time's supporting cast produced a 10-win season, plus a playoff victory over New Orleans. But Elvis finally arrived to pick up his tickets in 1992. And not '50s Elvis, either. 6-10, prone by the toilet.

Grimes separates. Bryant angles for his one shot to swat the ball away.

After the 1980 regular season, many picked the Falcons to reach the Super Bowl. Their offense and defense both ranked in the league's top five. In Atlanta's first-ever home playoff game, Dallas quarterback Danny White put together a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback win. Years later, coach Leeman Bennett, quarterback Steve Bartkowski, and Van Note would admit the Cowboys loss shat a dark cloud over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for years. The Falcons finished 1981 with three straight losses, going 7-9.

Grimes returned punts for years in college, and muscle memory takes over. He absorbs the ball with his entire body instead of fielding it with his palms and fingers like a wide receiver. This ball was his as soon as it left Freeman's hand, as sure as if he'd been waving for a fair catch.

Most of the pieces of the 12-4 1980 season and 9-7 1978 season were in place in 1979, but three separate three-game losing streaks led to a 6-10 record, as the formerly great Grits Blitz defense collapsed to 26th out of 28 teams.

The pride of Shippensburg curls around the ball -- one part momentum, one part paternal instinct.

Knowing the Falcons would record a winning season the following year, you'd think having the (statistically) greatest defense in NFL history would spell the end of The Curse. Unfortunately, the 1977 team also had one of the league's worst offenses. Atlanta lost five games in which the opponent scored 17 or fewer points, including a freaking 3-0 loss to O.J. Simpson's Bills. 7-7.

Before Grimes even lands, Wes Durham has already called it an interception. The Falcons had bet the farm after the Bucs shuffled their offensive line due to an injury. That's the kind of thing that forces a young quarterback into a bad throw. That's the kind of thing that breaks a curse.

Norm Van Brocklin's 1973 Falcons earned a 9-5 record, putting together a top-ten defense and a punishing offense that ran the ball 62% of the time. The 1974 season saw the Birds cut their still-successful running game down to 52% of their attack, throwing an ate-the-whole-wheel-of-cheese 31 interceptions in 356 attempts. 3-11.

The cavalry arrives. DeCoud had your back the whole time.

1972's team bridged the gap between their first-ever winning season in 1971 and 1973's success. With a 7-5 record, the Falcons absorbed another 49ers beatdown and its requisite lackluster followup. 7-7.

A fanbase exhales. Jason Snelling gets ready to murder some clock. Soon, Matt Bryant tacks on three for fun. 

The Atlanta Falcons chased their 11-5 2008 with a 9-7 encore, clinching the franchise's first-ever repeat winning season in the closing minutes of the 2009 season. They ride into 2010 looking for three in a row.

[Screenshots via game video at atlantafalcons.com.]

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.