Yesterday, the Atlanta Falcons lost. It was their first loss of the season. Their record is now 8-1.
For Falcons fans, and I presume for the team itself, it was a tough loss. Not so much because it is the first blemish of the season, but because (a) it was to New Orleans; and (b) they could have won. Like, for real they could have won. With time winding down, they were within 2 yards of a go-ahead score. When they were unable to convert, they managed to get the ball back with enough time for the offense to do what it does and pull a win out of its playbook. This time, though, they ended up 2 yards shy of a huge Roddy White catch for another variation of glorious Atlanta Falcon Football Fantasticalness (it's a word).
And now the "L" column of their 2012-13 season doesn't stand for "Lonely" anymore.
As you can surmise, I have paid attention to the Falcons' season and to the attention that has been paid to it/them. I am puzzled to report that yesterday afternoon, for the first time I can recall this year, the Falcons' game was the lead story in every game break, game recap, and game psychoanalysis. THE FALCONS LOSE! THE FALCONS LOST! THE FALCONS ARE 8-1! NEW ORLEANS HELD OFF THE FALCONS! THE FALCONS CAN'T MOUNT A COMEBACK! HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES, MATT RYAN HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH?!?!?!?
It was the loss heard 'round Twitter, the goal-line stand to rival the last stand of the Battle of Antietam, and the crumbling of a wall slightly less monumental than the one that used to divide the Germanys. It's as if the world outside of Falcons' Nation heaved a collective sigh of relief, followed immediately by a "Yeehaw" and topped off with a (remarkably less mature) "I TOLD YOU SO!"
Until yesterday, the Falcons were the success story minus the story. They were the over-achieving child the parents kept locked in a closet. They were the precocious perfectionists everyone decided were best dealt with through an extended media timeout.
Until yesterday, the most consistent coverage the Falcons got was in the form of "yeah, but." Hey, they beat the Broncos! Yeah, but Peyton's neck is still tweaky. Hey, they beat that phenom you all liken to the love-child of a Steve Young-John Elway-Dan Marino threesome! Yeah, but they were losing until they beat him. Hey, they beat the Cowboys at home under that wicked huge, kinda scary tv! Yeah, but the Cowboys aren't really The Cowboys anymore.
The players insisted they didn't mind this short shrift. Fine, good for them. Not only are they far superior athletes than me, they are far superior perspective-keepers. I thought the begrudging, back-handed attention being paid to the Falcons was annoying. But I didn't really care enough, because the Falcons were winning. Which was kind of the best comeback to any and every variety of "yeah, but."
Yeah, but yesterday the Falcons lost. I don't think they are going to make a habit of it. What the loss showed me most immediately was that my nagging suspicion that the Falcons were the team everyone loved to root against was not misplaced. It was the sports-world equivalent of "na na na boo boo."
Sports is a weird world for lots of reasons. One of them has to be that it is a world where you're allowed to hate a person you'll never meet, a team you could never make, and a city you may never go to, just because. Just because he rivals "your" guy. Just because they might beat "your" team. Just because you've made it "your" city since you were born there or your dad was born there or it's the city with the name you learned how to spell.
Remember how the Green Bay Packers were undefeated for a while last season? I looked back at THEIR first 8 games, and they didn't beat a single team with a record over .500. In fact, several of the teams they beat were well under .500. And even as they continued their march towards perfection, the best team they beat were the Detroit Lions, whose record was 7-3 going into the game. Yet throughout that run, I do not recall their 8-0 record, or the perfection they maintained until a surprising loss to Kansas City that put them at 13-1, being tainted or downgraded or "yeah, but-ed" the way the Falcons was through yesterday.
What is it about the Falcons' franchise that inspired the tepid reaction they received? Why the fawning over Green Bay and the flailing over the Falcons? What's the difference between the Packers beating "average" teams and the Falcons beating "average" teams?
Sports is a fickle business, a petty pastime, a dangerous mistress. Maybe the difference between the Packers then and the Falcons until yesterday was the point differentials. Maybe it was the highlight reels. Maybe it was Aaron Rodgers coining a dance that would make for some great State Farm commercials, and Matt Ryan sticking with less Hollywood fist pump.
Or maybe the difference is just that people find the Packers a team they can more universally get behind. And that would be their loss.
The world beyond Falcons' Nation is missing out on a fun, talented, admirable team. So their loss is way more painful than the loss the Falcons experienced yesterday.
And something tells me the Falcons will learn much more quickly from theirs.