I've had a hangover since Sunday, although I haven't consumed a drop of alcohol in that timeframe. The fog, the heaviness, the faintly upset stomach I've been walking around with for two days were brought on by a potent mixture of dashed expectations and vicarious disappointment. How do you hydrate your way out of the "what could have been's" and the "so close you can taste it's"?
I walked into the Georgia Dome on Sunday for the NFC Championship game between the Falcons and the 49ers in unusual form. First, it was unusual I was there in the first place; my last live Falcons game was in 2008. Beyond that, though, it was unusual that I was letting myself admit that I was optimistic about the Falcons, confessing to my sisters and other friends and family in attendance that I had a "good feeling."
Normally, superstition and my general cynicism tells me to hope for the best, expect the worst, and keep my mouth shut in any event. But I had visions of jubilation and confetti and trophies and a throng of 70,000 exploding in cheers dancing in my head. In my mind's eye, I could see my husband and I figuring out the logistics of getting to the Super Bowl.
As the game played out, my unusual state began to feel justified, comfortable, even reassuring. Sure, Kaepernick started heating up, but we stopped his offense on the goal line. Yes, they were narrowing the point differential, but David Akers' chip-shot of a field goal bounced off the upright. After years of losing to the moment's "team of destiny," it felt like it was finally the Falcons' turn to be the team fate decided to put on its shoulders.
With six seconds to go and the ball in our offense's hands, the question I was asking myself was whether Roddy, Julio, Harry, or Tony would be the one to catch Matt's dagger-to-the-San-Francisco-heart pass to put us back in front for yet another come-from-behind victory.
With zero seconds to go, the question I was asking myself was how victory had slipped out of the Falcons' hands. The question was not grounded in an accusatory perspective. I wasn't thinking about whether the defense cracked or the offense sputtered, and I wasn't rehashing catches that should have been made or runs that should have been stopped. I was wondering how, in fairness, the Falcons could have been allowed to lose.
As with any fan of any sport, the longer I have spent as a Falcons fan, the more I have become invested, emotionally, with the team. I recognize more and more of the players, I'm familiar with more and more of the personality they share with the public, and I'm aware of more and more of the back-stories. As this particular team ground through this particular season, I became more and more convinced that this team "deserved" to win, "deserved" to silence the doubters, "deserved" to step out from behind the perennial giants and claim its place among the elite.
I still believe that they did deserve all of those things. Perhaps that's why this loss has a sting that doesn't show signs of easing anytime soon.
I do not accept that the Falcons' loss is indicative of, or attributable to, some widespread failure or lack of competence on the part of the Falcons. No team is perfect, and the Falcons surely have areas where they fall short of ideal. But their record - not just this season, but extending back to the seasons of recent history - prove they're not the fluke or lightweight others choose to typecast them as.
What's more, it has to mean something that they were only one of four teams left standing. It also has to mean something that they were beaten by a team whose next stop is a Super Bowl. That team, regardless of provenance or coach or quarterback, is necessarily an exceptional football team.
And the Falcons almost beat them.
Until the final quarter, the game was a thing to behold. The atmosphere was electric, the noise defeaning, the spirit strong. The unparalleled relationship between athletes on a field working in tandem with the crowd of strangers using their voices and their colors and their towels to propel those athletes to the next beautiful play.
For one quarter, the Falcons racked up yard after yard of offense while holding the 49ers to -2. For one half, the Falcons were firing on all cylinders. For most of the game, the Falcons looked like they were going to dethrone the most recently anointed wunderkind.
The Falcons have every right to be going to the Super Bowl, and they almost made every play they needed to get there. The narrowness of the loss adds to the sting.
Probabilities dictate that the team we saw take the field on Sunday will not be the team we see take the field in September. Legends will retire, trades will be made, draftees will be picked. The magic of this season is bottled up and shelved for the record books and the highlight reels. We now live with this team in the past, and that loss also stings.
In my mind, the best men didn't win because those men didn't win. And though I know all good things must come to an end, I think the end here should have been in February, not January. So I continue in my hangover state, looking for the antidote that may rest only in the icy hands of one man or the fleet feet of another, neither of which will be deployed for months.
Thank you, Atlanta Falcons, for the season of extraordinary pride, enjoyment, and entertainment you delivered. Thank you, Falcons Nation, for the fun we shared. Thank you, Roger Goodell, for not getting in the way.
They take you to endings that may be low, and then bring you the prospects of glorious new heights. To which you rise up.