After coming close, Bulldogs and Falcons set to try again

AP File Photo/David Goldman Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan walks off the field as the San Francisco 49ers celebrate after the NFL football NFC Championship game. The Falcons are looking to bounce back in 2013 after the tough end to last season.

The quarterback wearing red threw toward a receiver along the right sideline. A leaping outside linebacker wearing a white jersey bearing red numerals batted it with his left hand. It had happened in this stadium in the final seconds of a frenzied conference title game seven weeks earlier, and here it was again.

The parallels weren’t absolutely exact – Alabama’s C.J. Mosley deflected a Georgia pass on the last play of the SEC Championship game; the deflection by San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks’ came on the penultimate snap of the Falcons’ final real drive of the NFC title tilt – but they were close enough to make you say, “Are you kidding?” Essentially the same game for the same stakes was staged under the same roof 50 days apart. Both ended the same way.

Twice a team based in Georgia held a double-digit lead in the second half over a favored opponent. Both leads were overridden. Both times the local team drove within sight of the touchdown that would have lifted it into an outright championship game, where both local teams would surely have been favored. Both drives failed, if only just. Both local teams finished second in a pulsating national semifinal.

The final margin in both games was four points, which meant there could be no field goal to force overtime. Both failed drives featured a favorable replay ruling for the locals. (A clinching Alabama interception was overturned; a falling-and-juggling catch by Harry Douglas was upheld.) The final real drive in both games ended inside the 10-yard line at the Georgia Dome’s north end. The tipped passes came at spots on the field not 10 feet apart.

Having come so close last season, the Georgia-based teams prepare to start again. The SEC will hold its Media Days in Hoover, Ala., this week; the Falcons will open training camp July 25. Having come so close – the Bulldogs came within 5 yards of playing Notre Dame for the BCS title, the Falcons within 10 of facing Baltimore in the Super Bowl – we ask: Can either or both go the distance?

Back to parallels: The Bulldogs and the Falcons approach 2013 in similar fashion. Each is the consensus choice to win its division. Neither is the consensus choice to win its conference.

Each is coached by a man who has done exemplary work, but who hasn’t taken his team to an outright championship. Each has a quarterback of great skill and achievement, but the same question adheres to Matt Ryan and Aaron Murray: Can he win the big game? Each fan base has reason to believe; each also has cause to wonder.

A case can be made that both the Bulldogs and the Falcons might never have a better shot than they just did. Georgia played Alabama off its feet for much of the game, leading 21-10 in the third quarter and 28-24 with five minutes remaining. The Falcons led San Francisco 17-0 one play into the second quarter and 24-14 at the half; they would outgain the 49ers by 104 yards. Each could have seized one of the greatest victories in its history. Neither did.

Which isn’t to say that neither will grab the big prize this time. Both teams look better today than we might have imagined. Many if not most figured Murray would leave for the NFL, but he chose to stay. The Falcons cut Michael Turner and John Abraham and Dunta Robinson, but found apparently able replacements in Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora and the rookie cornerback tandem of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.

Still, the dynamics of the season ahead might have less to do with personnel than with psyche. Both the Bulldogs and the Falcons have been building toward a championship for a while now; that neither has yet become a champion makes us – and perhaps the teams themselves – wonder if they will. There wasn’t much difference between the winners and losers of those two epic Dome games, but championships are won and lost in the narrow margins.

In a ball tipped by Mosley and caught by Georgia’s Chris Conley, who fell at the 5 as time was expiring. In a defensive swoop by linebacker Navorro Bowman – and perhaps a penalty uncalled – on Ryan’s fourth-down pass to Roddy White. In all the plays leading to those final flings, in chances not taken when afforded.

At the same end of the same stadium, the Bulldogs and the Falcons came as close as you can come without winning. We’re about to see if these darn strong teams can do more than come close.