I grew up just a few miles from where they built Candlestick Park. The stadium was erected for the San Francisco Giants, but after the 49ers abandoned their longtime home, Kezar Stadium, they moved into the facility that was built for baseball but turned out to be an even better stadium for football.
In 1970, the 49ers played their last game at Kezar, a playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. I had slept in an outside line for tickets to get into that game, and two years after that was at Candlestick when the 49ers met the Cowboys for the third consecutive year in the playoffs. After losing that game to complete their 1970 season, and losing to Dallas the year Tom Landry led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl in 1971, the 1972 meeting was the one the 49ers were going to win.
It looked like that for a long time too. Dick Nolan’s team opened the action with a kickoff return for a touchdown by Vic Washington, and with just over five minutes left in the game the obnoxious Dallas fan sitting in front of me packed up and left with the 49ers leading, 28-13. Then, Landry replaced quarterback Caig Morton with Roger Staubach, who led the Cowboys to a deficit reducing field goal on his first drive. A touchdown to pull Dallas to within five points on his second drive, and after Preston Riley botched the ensuing onside kick, Dallas scored the winning touchdown with 52 seconds left on the game clock to end the 49ers season for a third consecutive year in the playoffs, 30-28.
I tell you this story not to emphasize how satisfying Dwight Clark’s catch was for San Francisco fans seven years later to beat Dallas in the playoffs, but to illuminate what happens to a coach and a team when they give up a big lead and lose in the playoffs. The 49ers had won the Western Division three straight years under head coach Dick Nolan, their first venture into the playoffs since 1957. But, after that loss to Dallas in 1972, Nolan never got San Francisco back to the playoffs. It wasn’t until the 49ers had a change in ownership and Bill Walsh as head coach that they returned to the postseason.
Do you recall the biggest comeback in NFL history? The Houston Oilers led the Buffalo Bills 35-3 in the third quarter, only to lose the game 41-38 in overtime. The Oilers were playing in their seventh consecutive postseason when they blew that lead, and after the loss never won another postseason game.
Now, I tell you that because we have one of these kinds of streaks alive today in the NFL. Three years ago, the Atlanta Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, and Matt Ryan completed a pass to Julio Jones late in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons within field goal range while leading by eight points. Yet, both the 25 point lead and near clinching field position late, were lost when the New England Patriots pushed Atlanta out of field goal range, scored a touchdown and converted the game tying two point conversion to push the contest to overtime.
Once the Patriots won the toss to start the extra period, the writing was on the wall that the Falcons were doomed. They were, by a 34-28 final score.
Do they recover from this collapse?
They did return to the playoffs in 2017, got an upset road win over the Los Angeles Rams to open their playoff run that year before losing the next week to eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia.
Last year, the Falcons didn’t make the postseason, in a year in which injuries and suspect quarterback play earned them a disappointing 7-9 regular season mark. This year, no better. They still have a tendency to come up short in the red zone and got blown out on opening day in Minnesota by the Vikings, 28-12, in a game not as close as the score, and lost last Sunday in Indianapolis after slipping by the Eagles in second week action.
Atlanta beat the Eagles when the motivational factors were strongly on their side to gain revenge and they were getting a point on the spread against a Philadelphia squad that had beaten them both in the playoffs two years ago and on opening day last season. Now, they play at home off a loss and favored over a Tennessee team coming off back-to-back setbacks to Indianapolis and Jacksonville following an opening day blowout win over the Cleveland Browns on the road.
If I was to look at this from a purely objective standpoint, I’d say the Falcons were in big trouble as a favorite on the point spread this week. But my assessment is greatly enhanced by two factors, the public doesn’t see any trouble laying four points with the Falcons, more than 60% of all wagers are taking them at home, and the linemakers have dropped the point spread to 3½ points.
Why would the books drop the point spread on this game if the public is backing the favorite?
Because somebody isn’t.
Me, for one, and you, I suggest.
Qoxhi Picks: Tennessee Titans (+3½) over Atlanta Falcons