FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Hey, did you hear the one about Choking Awareness Day?
It’s held on 3-28.
Of course, that punch line references the score late in the third quarter of last season’s Super Bowl, when it looked as though the Atlanta Falcons would finally win their first championship.
Then, as they remember all too painfully in these parts, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots scored 31 consecutive points to pull off the greatest comeback in the title game’s 51-year history, winning 34-28 in overtime.
Brady collected his fifth ring.
The Falcons became the butt of the joke.
Lots and lots of jokes.
Even now, as Atlanta prepares to open the season Sunday with a road game against the Chicago Bears, there’s no sign of the jabs letting up.
Just last weekend, when Texas A&M squandered a 34-point lead in the second half and lost 45-44 to UCLA, a Lou Holtz parody account on Twitter claimed the Aggies were unveiling a new logo. Naturally, it was the Falcons’ distinctive emblem.
In New Orleans, home of the Falcons’ biggest rival, the Dirty Coast shop on Magazine Street has been offering T-shirts with a scoreboard-like design “28-3, 3rd, 2:12” - when Atlanta was still up by 25. As if that wasn’t enough to bring a smile to Saints’ fans, the store also has been raising money to put up a billboard with the same design outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons’ new stadium.
“I don’t pay attention to that,” Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones said with a shrug. “It happened. We can’t go back and change it. So, I mean, you lick your wounds a little bit, then you have to get on with your life.”
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn has pushed his team to look forward, not backward.
He keeps insisting there will be no hangover from the devastating loss.
“When we came back, I knew there was going to be questions like, ‘OK, how much more work do we have to do to talk about last year?’” Quinn said. “I got my answer pretty early in training camp when I saw us go for it in the biggest way.”
But he understands that plenty of Atlanta fans are a bit sensitive to all the barbs.
“I love our fans,” Quinn said. “For them to get (ticked off) about it, that’s cool with me.”
That means you, Peyton Manning, who got in on the act at the ESPY Awards.
“I believe in the Falcons. I believe in (MVP quarterback) Matt Ryan and Dan Quinn, and I know in my heart the Falcons will be back,” the former NFL great said, setting up his zinger. “I wanted the Falcons to hear that from me now, at the beginning of the show, because they’re going to stop paying attention three-quarters of the way in.”
Even two other NFC South rivals, teams the Falcons will face twice this season, couldn’t resist the chance to pile on.
On March 28 - yep, 3-28 - the Carolina Panthers tweeted a picture of four players. But only two were tagged: No. 3 (Derek Anderson) and No. 28 (Johnathan Stewart). Clearly, that was no coincidence, which became apparent when the tweet was quietly deleted a few hours later.
A couple of months later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent out a seemingly innocuous tweet pitching their team-logo fidget spinners. When the Falcons’ account chimed in with a GIF of cornerback Desmond Trufant asking if the Bucs were “nervous about something,” the Bucs quickly responded by tweeting a picture of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (No. 28) celebrating with quarterback Jameis Winston (No. 3).
Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter, a former Falcons’ offensive coordinator, wound up apologizing for that little back-and-forth.
No need, said Falcons safety Ricardo Allen.
This team can take it.
“It does nothing for us,” he said Wednesday. “This world is so lost in staying in the past… Yes, we lost that game. They won that game. That’s last year. This is a new year. This team, we have the mindset of next-play mentality.
“If you have a bad play, OK, next play. They’re going to make plays. Bad game? Next game.”
Ryan, in a way, addressed the issue head-on by taking part in a Gatorade television commercial that featured, among others, Michael Jordan and Serena Williams talking about their biggest disappointments. Titled “The Secret to Victory,” it ends with a recreation of the Falcons quarterback dejectedly leaving the field after the Super Bowl, a voiceover describing his “utter disbelief,” before he stares into the camera and says one word.
Then it shows Ryan getting back to work, throwing one pass after another on the practice field, ending with the mantra, “Make Defeat Your Fuel.”
“It’s about moving forward,” Ryan said. “To me, that’s what made sense. You learn from all these things throughout your life. Different things happen to you along the way. You learn from them and try to use them as motivation.”
And the jokes? Is he using those as motivation?
“No,” Ryan shot back, managing a weak smile. “I don’t pay much attention to it.”
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