By crushing the champion, the Falcons show they’re Super

"Yeah, baby! Take that 24-2 and give my regards to Broadway!" (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

"Yeah, baby! Why don't you take that 24-2 and give my regards to Broadway?" (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

So now we know: In addition to being a darn good football team, the Atlanta Falcons are the world’s best sandbaggers.

In working 13 games of varying quality, they’d dropped the hint that this team was no better than before and was, ergo, bound for the same one-and-done postseason fate. Turns out the Falcons were just being sly. “Go hyperventilate over somebody else,” they were saying, “while we win enough games to put ourselves in position. And then you can tell us again how we can’t beat anybody any good when it matters.”

On Sunday this unassuming crew dropped a 500-pound sandbag on the collective noggin of the reigning Super Bowl champions. Forty-nine weeks ago, the Falcons were overpowered 24-2 in the Meadowlands. But these Falcons, as was made manifest Sunday, are not those Falcons. These Falcons not only beat the haughty Giants by 34 points but pulled off a deft bit …

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Fifteen fateful seconds: The Bulldogs look back in anguish

The heat of the moment: Aaron Murray tells Chris Conley he should have dropped the ball. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Aaron Murray and Chris Conley after the completion that wasn't supposed to be. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Fifteen seconds left, eight yards from victory. We know how the epic SEC championship game played out – for late tuners-in, Alabama beat Georgia 32-28 on Dec. 1 – but what exactly went into those 15 overstuffed seconds? Why did what happened happen?

We begin at the end, or very near it. (All the voices heard below spoke at a Georgia media session this week in Athens.) An apparent clinching interception by Dee Milliner with 45 seconds remaining was overturned by video review, handing the Bulldogs a glimmer of life that would become a starburst. Quarterback Aaron Murray found tight end Arthur Lynch for 15 yards, then wide receiver Tavarres King for 23, then Lynch again for 26.

In 30 seconds the Bulldogs traveled 64 yards against the nation’s top-ranked defense. A game that had seen five lead changes was eight yards from a sixth.

Murray: “We’d gotten a little break …

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Isn’t UGA better than the Capital One Bowl? Why, sure it is

For Georgia, getting over Alabama won't be easy. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

For the Bulldogs, getting over the Alabama game won't be easy. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

Athens – Depending on the index, Georgia is ranked No. 5 (USA Today coaches’ poll), No. 6 (Associated Press) or No. 7 (BCS) in the land. Counting the national championship game, the BCS fits 10 teams into five postseason games. Georgia, alas, is not among them.

The Bulldogs are bound for the Capital One Bowl, which is essentially the consolation game for losers of conference championships. (Georgia’s opponent is Nebraska, which lost to Wisconsin 70-31 in the Big Ten title tilt.) With three losses, the Cornhuskers probably belong in the Capital One. Georgia does not.

At worst, Georgia is the nation’s third-best team. It went 11-1 in the regular season and won the SEC Eastern Division, which this time around was no junior circuit. (Florida is ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings, South Carolina No. 10). But the Bulldogs were penalized for falling five yards short in one of the …

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Heat Check: Division-winning Falcons are in cold storage

Carolina coach Ron Rivera is peeved, while Mike Smith is perplexed. (AP photo)

Carolina coach Ron Rivera is apparently peeved, while Mike Smith is perplexed. (AP photo)

Our weekly Heat Check arrives, perhaps inappropriately, on a chilly morning.

FALCONS: The good news — well, to some ears — is that they’re getting a new stadium. The bad news is that they stunk out Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, losing by 10 points to the last-place Carolina Panthers. Atmospheric reading: The Falcons are in a really weird place, and by this we don’t mean Flowery Branch or the doomed Georgia Dome. They clinched the NFC South with a month to spare, which essentially thrusts them into another preseason. They know they’re going to the playoffs and they know they’ll need to play well once there, but the reality is that these final regular-season games mean next to nothing.

HAWKS: Had a chance to nose ahead of the Miami Heat in the NBA Southeast. Didn’t do it, losing by nine after a pretty stout first half. This came two days after an eye-opening road victory at Memphis. …

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Does Atlanta need a new stadium? No, but it’s getting one

Frank Poe and Rich McKay, laughing all the way to the construction site. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

Frank Poe and Rich McKay, laughing all the way to the construction site. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

On Monday, the man charged with making the Atlanta Falcons’ pitch for a new stadium actually made a case for the current one. “We don’t need a building to play in next Sunday,” team president Rich McKay said. “The Georgia Dome is a good building. We love playing in it. (Falcons coach) Mike Smith has an incredible record in it.”

So why, if the Dome is dandy, was McKay sitting at a dais with Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, briefing the assembled media an hour after the GWCCA board unanimously approved terms that will surely lead to the building of a new stadium?

Because in sports as in life, new and shiny trumps tried and true. The Dome opened in 1992, and it’s a nice place two decades on, but by 2017 it’ll be gone, having been rendered superfluous by its billion dollar baby brother.

Said McKay: “We need a new stadium …

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Five yards short: In bitter defeat, a winning Georgia effort

The final moments of a fabulous game: Chris Conley catches the ball. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The final moments of a fabulous game: Chris Conley catches the ball. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

There are people who say that only championships matter, that finishing second is the same as finishing last. To those people, we say this: Go away now. Go away while we honor — and yes, that’s the proper word — as gallant a runner-up as we’ll ever see. Go away and let us speak of the Georgia Bulldogs.

They’d waited 30 years for a game this big, and they came as close as you could come to winning it without actually winning. Three times they took a lead over the mighty Alabama, and even after what should have been a crushing Tide touchdown with 3:15 remaining, even after what seemed a clinching Bama interception inside the final minute … even then, these Bulldogs found themselves with first-and-goal and time flying.

That they fell five yards short, that a tipped Aaron Murray pass for Malcolm Mitchell was caught by a falling Chris Conley and the final five seconds ticked away, …

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Bama’s runners, Saban’s gaffe and a classic SEC title game

Georgia's Marshall Morgan's toe meets leather to start the game. (AJC photo by Ben Gray)

Georgia's Marshall Morgan's toe meets leather to start the SEC title game. (AJC photo by Ben Gray)

This post is an adjunct to the game column, which can be found here.

1. Alabama shattered the SEC Championship game record for yards rushing. The Tide ran for 350 yards, with two backs — game MVP Eddie Lacy and backup T.J. Yeldon — each going way over 100. (Lacy had 181, Yeldon 153.) And it was, almost inevitably, the fear of the Alabama ground game that spawned the Tide’s winning touchdown. AJ McCarron threw deep to Amari Cooper, who had run past Damain Swann, for the winning touchdown with 3:15 to play. But Alabama couldn’t run out the clock inside the final two minutes, and it nearly cost the Tide the game.

2. Even the best in the business sometimes whiffs. Alabama coach Nick Saban waited until five seconds remained in the first half to use his first timeout. After converting on third-and-2 at the Georgia 39 with 42 seconds left, the Crimson Tide allowed the clock to tick …

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Live from the Dome: Favored Bama meets hungry Dogs!

That famous jokester Nick Saban leaves Mark Richt in stitches. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

That famous jokester Nick Saban leaves Mark Richt in stitches Friday. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

At the SEC Coaches’ Luncheon at the Hyatt on Friday, emcee Dave Neal asked Nick Saban if it was easier to keep a team motivated as a favorite, or if being an underdog was preferable. Whereupon Mark Richt said, “What does he know about being an underdog?”

Saban’s Crimson Tide is favored today by eight points over Richt’s Bulldogs, but an awful lot of folks — this correspondent included — are picking Georgia. Still, this matchup couldn’t have caught Saban unaware.

“Last summer I was at the lake (Burton, where every  big-name college football coach has a summer house) and I was fooling around in the yard, and two guys rode up on JetSkis,” Saban told Richt at the luncheon. “One of them was your quarterback Aaron Murray and the other was your center (David Andrews). And they said, ‘We’ll see you in the SEC championship game.’ ”

And here both teams are, Alabama ranked No. 2 to …

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For Mark Richt and Georgia, the moment is finally at hand

Twelve years a Bulldog, Mark Richt's breakthrough moment has finally arrived. (AP photo by David Goldman)

Twelve years a Bulldog, Mark Richt's breakthrough chance comes Saturday. (AP photo by David Goldman)

Mark Richt apprenticed at Florida State when the Seminoles played for five national championships in eight seasons, and he came to Athens expecting more of the same. “That was the plan coming in,” he said Friday, “but it hasn’t happened yet.”

It could well happen Saturday. If Richt’s team wins the SEC championship game, the plan will have come to fruition. Twelve years Georgia’s coach, Richt has never been so close to playing for the BCS title. Twelve years Georgia’s coach, the path finally is clear.

A coach can never know when, or if, his moment will arrive. Richt had great early success – three division titles and two SEC championships in his first five years – and then he had rather less. We began to wonder if a fine career could ever bring the ultimate validation. Well, it’s there to be seized under the off-white roof of the Georgia Dome, there to be …

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The powerful Falcons, Brees’ INTs and the Saints’ botch

The Falcons react as the first half runs out on the Saints. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The Falcons' sideline reacts as the first half runs out on the Saints. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

This post is an adjunct to the Falcons-Saints game column, which can be found here.

1. The Falcons set out to prove a point. After losing in the Superdome 17 days earlier, coach Mike Smith noted that his time wasn’t winning the line of scrimmage. The Falcons rushed for 46 yards that day. They rushed for 71 yards on Thursday night’s opening drive, which culminated in a Michael Turner touchdown. On the drive, they deployed guard Mike Johnson as a tight end for more oomph.  Said Smith: “The game of football is about the line of scrimmage. I thought we did a nice job of getting our running backs to second level, which is how you have 100 yards rushing in a half.”

2. This secondary keeps losing men but making plays. Cornerback Brent Grimes was lost after the opening game, and Asante Samuel left this game early after re-injuring the shoulder he seems to tweak every week. But subs …

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