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Column: Atlanta braces for nightmarish Super Bowl matchup

(AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)

By PAUL NEWBERRY

AP Sports Columnist

ATLANTA (AP) Coming off two straight trips to the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons had high hopes of becoming the first true home team in Super Bowl history.

Well, those plans were dashed before the leaves changed colors.

Now, the city is left with a nightmare of a potential matchup as it prepares to host the NFL title game for the third time.

New Orleans vs. New England.

"Lord please don't let there be a Saints Patriots Super Bowl in Atlanta," an apparent Falcons fan wrote on Twitter, expressing the sentiment of the entire A-T-L in less than 280 characters.

It very well could happen.

On Sunday, the Saints will host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game. As soon as that's over, the Patriots will take the field in Kansas City to face the Chiefs for the AFC title.

The winners will head to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Feb. 3 Super Bowl.

All of Atlanta is holding its breath, hoping it can exhale rather than hold its nose for the big game.

"I don't even have to watch the games this weekend to know that this year's super bowl is gonna be saints-patriots because the sports gods hate atlanta that much," said another post on Twitter, filled with dread.

Indeed, a city that has endured so much sporting heartbreak can sense what's coming.

The Saints are the Falcons' most bitter rival, a twice-a-year NFC South opponent that already has some pretty big bragging rights over Atlanta: New Orleans won the Super Bowl nearly a decade ago.

The Falcons are still without a championship, though they have only themselves to blame for that gaping hole in their 53-year-old trophy case. Two seasons ago, at the Super Bowl in Houston, Atlanta stormed to a 28-3 lead over the Patriots to set off a premature celebration.

Of course, we all know how the Falcons-Patriots story ended.

Tom Brady directed a comeback for the ages, leading New England to a 34-28 victory in overtime. The memories from that game still cause grimaced looks in Atlanta, where 3-28 has become a lingering punchline.

A couple of months after the game, Boston celebrated "Falcons Day" on March 28. You know, because that's 3-28 on the calendar. Others dubbed it "Choking Awareness Day." After Texas A&M squandered a 34-point lead in a loss to UCLA, a parody account said the Aggies were unveiling a new logo - the Falcons' logo, naturally.

Even down in the Big Easy, they couldn't resist the chance to pile on. A shop on Magazine Street offered up T-shirts with a scoreboard-like design "28-3, 3rd, 2:12" - that point in the game when Atlanta was still up by 25. A plane flew over the Superdome pulling a "3-28" banner.

The Falcons returned to the playoffs last season, only to lose a heartbreaking divisional round game at Philadelphia to the eventual champion Eagles. Still, it looked as though coach Dan Quinn was building something special in Atlanta: a team featuring a dynamic offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, along with a young, aggressive defense that was making rapid improvement.

Perhaps that Super Bowl disappointment was merely a warm-up to the city's greatest sporting triumph, a title that could be celebrated right at home. Atlanta fans looked hopefully at that final game on this year's schedule, to be played at the Falcons' new $1.5 billion home. They dreamed of their team finally finishing the job it started two years ago in Houston.

Then came a rash of season-ending injuries and a five-game losing streak that sent the Falcons tumbling to a 7-9 record, their worst since 2014. They lost both meetings to the Saints, including an overtime setback in Week 3 that essentially set the tone for the disappointing campaign. When the time the Falcons played their final home game, there were tens of thousands of empty seats in their 72,000-seat stadium.

New Orleans romped to the best record (13-3) in the NFC, though Falcons fans were feeling a bit hopeful when Philadelphia raced out to a 14-0 lead in the divisional round game last weekend.

Much like Atlanta's lead in Super Bowl LI, it didn't last. New Orleans rallied for a 20-14 victory.

Now, with one more win, the Saints will head to Atlanta seeking their second championship.

Talk about rubbing it in: The NFC champion will use the Falcons' training facility in suburban Flowery Branch for its practices. As in, New Orleans would claim Atlanta's field.

It's all a bit too much to bear.

Speaking for most in her city, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was looking forward to a game that featured "anybody other than the Saints."

"I know there's going to be a bounty on my head for saying that," she said in an interview with These Urban Times. "But, if it can't be the Falcons, then hey, as long as it's not the Saints then I am happy."

The mayor walked back those comments at the start of a news conference to discuss Super Bowl preparations.

Well, sort of.

"Before we get to the real stuff, let me explain: it was a joke," Bottoms said. "But I don't know of a Falcons fan who wants to see New Orleans and the Patriots in the Super Bowl."

A nightmare scenario, indeed, for the A-T-L.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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For more AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Updated January 19, 2019

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