The first time the Falcons ever started a season 4-0 they ended up succumbing to injuries and, perhaps, their own doubts about whether they really were that good.
The second time the Falcons were perfect through four games they ended up winning the NFC South and advancing to the NFC championship game.
The Falcons, 4-0 for just the third time in franchise history, are looking to finish more like 2004 than 1986.
“They have a very, very good chance,” said Gerald Riggs, the Pro Bowl running back on the 1986 Falcons team. “Everybody can look to everything in the regular season, but the proof is what happens in the postseason. They should have no issue getting in the postseason.”
That’s the way it appears with the Falcons already three games ahead of Tampa Bay and Carolina and four games clear of the Saints. Atlanta already defeated Carolina, owns two road victories and boasts the No. 3 scoring offense in the league.
But, as the 1986 Falcons discovered, a promising season can unravel fast.
Expectations were low for the Falcons in 1986. They had posted back-to-back 4-12 seasons under coach Dan Henning and managed just three winning seasons since starting play in 1966 (not counting the strike-shortened 1982 season) .
The Falcons opened the season with a victory at New Orleans but there still were about 10,000 empty seats at Fulton County Stadium when they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals the next week. The perception of the Falcons changed after they won at Dallas in Week 3.
The Falcons were greeted by fans at the airport when they returned to Atlanta.
“They estimated there were a couple thousand fans in the concourse when we got off the plane,” said David Archer, Atlanta’s starting quarterback in 1986. “They were lined up in the concourse and we were high-fiving fans. It really was a great scene.”
After Atlanta won in overtime at Tampa Bay in Week 4, Fulton County Stadium was nearly full for the next week’s game against the Eagles. The Falcons’ streak ended with a 16-0 loss to the Eagles and new coach Buddy Ryan’s famed “46″ defense.
But Atlanta recovered to defeat the Los Angeles Rams at home the next week and rallied to forge a tie at San Francisco to stand 5-1-1. That was the final high point for the Falcons, who started a five-game losing streak at Los Angeles the next week.
Archer said the team’s depth wasn’t good to begin with and then injuries, including a separated shoulder suffered by Archer in Week 11, took their toll. Archer said the Falcons, who finished 7-8-1, also they didn’t handle the increased expectations well.
“We just kind of lost that momentum,” he said. “We were on a team that didn’t expect to win; we were just hoping to get off to a fast start. I think we got a little bit tight and started trying not to lose.”
By the time the Falcons lost in Week 14 to Indianapolis, which hadn’t won a game until then, Fulton County Stadium was half full and the excitement generated by the hot start had fizzled.
“After we went on the five-game losing streak, I don’t think even the [airport] baggage people came out to meet us,” Riggs said, laughing. “It was, ‘You have the key. Let yourself in.’ But it certainly it was a great time for something to happen in the city. We thought we got some things turned around.”
The 2004 Falcons had higher hopes than the 1984 team but their big season came one year later than expected.
Anticipation was high for the 2003 season after the Falcons became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field the previous January. Those hopes took a hit when star quarterback Michael Vick suffered a leg fracture during the 2003 preseason and was out for most of the year.
Vick was healthy for the 2004 season but Jim Mora had replaced Dan Reeves as coach.
“Jim Mora thought we could still capture the momentum [from 2002] that we thought was gone,” said Alge Crumpler, Atlanta’s Pro Bowl tight end in 2004. “As the season got going we found out we had something pretty special.”
Atlanta’s 4-0 start included victories at San Francisco, vs. the Rams and Cardinals, and at Carolina. The Falcons lost two of their next three games before another four-game winning streak sent them on their way to an 11-5 record. Atlanta defeated the Rams in the divisional playoffs before losing at Philadelphia in the conference championship game.
Statistically, the 2004 Falcons were mediocre on both sides of the ball and were prone to wild swings in performance, especially on offense. They had six games in which they scored 14 points or less and four games in which they scored 30 points or more.
Crumpler said the 2004 team had “one of the closest-knit locker rooms I ever had” and showed character through adversity.
“We were a little inconsistent, at best, but I felt like there wasn’t a team on our schedule we felt like we couldn’t beat,” Crumpler said. “I think as I watch this year’s team they are more consistent.”
The 2012 Falcons also say they are a close group with good chemistry. Crumpler noted that these Falcons have more offensive talent than the 2004 team, which relied heavily on Vick and Warrick Dunn to churn out rushing yards.
Riggs said, unlike the current Falcons, the 1986 team “didn’t really have all the pieces to make that kind of [championship] run.” Archer said another difference between the current Falcons and both the 1986 and 2004 teams is “they expect to win.”
“You saw against Carolina [on Sunday], they had the ball at the one [on the final drive] and still had a ‘never say die’ attitude,” Archer said.
The Falcons rallied to defeat the Panthers and remain one of three undefeated teams. The Texans are 4-0 for the first time in their short history and the Cardinals last were 4-0 in 1974.
Crumpler said the Falcons shouldn’t take their strong start for granted.
“The longer you play, the more you realize how hard it is to win in this league and appreciate the good things that happen to you,” he said. “Nothing is easy in this league.”
The unit 29th against the run (146.2 yards per game), ninth against the pass (206.8 yards) and it has forced the opposing quarterbacks into a passer rating of 68.7, which is fifth lowest in the NFL.