HOUSTON -- The crowning moment of Dan Quinn's career had come just a year before, at a Super Bowl that sent Peyton Manning into the night contemplating the miscues and confusion that had overwhelmed the most potent offense he had ever played in.
Quinn was the architect of the Seahawks' defense that demolished the Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII. A year later, when the Seahawks alighted on XLIX, the whispers of a dynasty were already in the air, and the Falcons were already waiting for Quinn to finish up in Seattle so they could give him a job. All Seattle had to do was dismantle the other biggest star in the NFL, Tom Brady, and the Seahawks would have their back-to-back championships, and Quinn would have the perfect entrance to head coaching.
And then the Seahawks inexplicably called for a pass instead of a run on second down at the Patriots' 1-yard line with just 26 seconds left. Undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler broke perfectly on the slant, and it's not a stretch to say that, two years later, the Seahawks still have not recovered.
Quinn, though, has moved on -- literally and, it seems, figuratively. In his second season as the Falcons' head coach, Quinn has them in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. If this presents a classic struggle between the league's best scoring offense and its stingiest defense, it is also tantalizing to imagine that Quinn might like to extract some measure of revenge against New England, as Brady might hope to stick it to the NFL at the end of his season that began with a four-game suspension. But, well, at least in Quinn's case, probably not.
Quinn is a relentlessly positive sort, with a bit of a new-age bent. On the wall of Quinn's office in Flowery Branch, Georgia, he has painted a motivational quote from a book called "Attitudes":
"The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life."
Quinn has opted to emphasize to his team the things that will be familiar from the last time he faced the Patriots, aiming to avoid the minefields that often trip up teams -- especially inexperienced ones -- at the Super Bowl. So even while he has received an avalanche of well wishes from people reaching back to his days as a student at Salisbury State University, and has watched offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan balance job interviews with the San Francisco 49ers, Quinn has concentrated on sticking to the team's routine for preparation.
"It's a big topic and I've gone [to the Super Bowl] when it's gone well, and been a part of it when it hasn't," Quinn said last week. "I want to outline keys to playing in the game and managing things on the outside. I can help share that with the guys. We've got a great process we go through to get ready and we're not going to deviate from that."
Still, Quinn has not completely blocked out the painful past. Soon after the coach arrived in Atlanta, there were some passing conversations about the game in which the Seahawks had blown a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, allowing Brady two touchdown passes in the bout's final eight minutes after yielding only two others in the first 52 minutes. The chatter was usually between Quinn and assistant general manager Scott Pioli, who had endured his own gut-punch of a Super Bowl when he was a Patriots' personnel executive for the team that was undefeated in the 2007 regular season, only to be stunned by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, allowing the winning touchdown with 35 seconds remaining.
"Well, most people think about the offensive possession. I think about the one that was just prior to that, where New England scored," Quinn said of Seattle's Super Bowl XLIX loss. "So, that's the one that stays in my memory for that long. Things that happened during the game, the individual matchups, the individual plays that you looked back at, those are the things that stay with you. Often times in a loss, those ones stay with you way longer than ones that happened during a win. So, I learned a lot in that game for sure. But in the end, that was the hardest part."
"Your intent is so focused on this game," he said. "That was from a different spot. It's this group going through this trip together."
Or, as a member of an NFL team who knows Quinn well put it about that loss to the Patriots: "Dan is an in-the-moment guy and a future-thinking guy. He doesn't dwell on stuff."
As excruciating as the final result was to the Seahawks, the play of Seattle's defense -- the only time Brady has faced a Quinn-coached defense -- was more mixed. Brady completed 37 of his 50 passes for 328 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions against the league's top passing defense. It is the most pass attempts by a winning quarterback in Super Bowl history, but it is also the only one of Brady's six previous Super Bowl appearances in which he threw multiple interceptions. Brady rarely tested the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary with deep passes, tormenting Seattle with short and intermediate passes instead. And in an echo of how the Giants foiled the '07 Patriots (and a precursor of how the Texans used Jadeveon Clowneya few weeks ago in the Divisional Round), Quinn had Michael Bennett line up frequently inside, where he was able to disrupt plays and get four quarterback knockdowns.
Hours after it was over, Quinn was on his way to Atlanta. His former boss, Pete Carroll, sent him off with some advice.
"There's nothing other than be yourself," Carroll said he told Quinn. "Be true to who he is."
Earlier this postseason, when Atlanta was preparing to play the Seahawks in the Divisional Round, it was apparent Quinn took the advice to heart when he told reporters on a conference call that, while the Falcons had rebuilt their defense since his arrival with the kind of speed that's been noted by Brady and Bill Belichick this week, he "never intended to have Seattle East."
"Dan doesn't really talk about Seattle and what Seattle does," veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "He talks about what we do. That's the most important part, is perfecting what we do, because we are a different team than Seattle. He never talked about anything in the past. That was the past and leave it in the past. We talk about the future and what is going on now."
In fact, the Falcons' defense looks less like Seattle's than it did earlier in the season, when the young group was fast -- but also porous. During the Falcons' bye in Week 11, with Quinn's input, the unit began to change. It is more aggressive, with more blitzing, which was on full display against Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game.
The difference has been dramatic. The defense finished the regular season ranked 25th overall and 27th in scoring defense -- it would be the worst scoring defense to win a Super Bowl, having allowed 25.4 points per game. But after the adjustments made during the off week, the performance has improved markedly. The Falcons have lost just one game since then. And in the last six games, including the playoffs, they have allowed 8.3 fewer points per game than they did in their first 12 games. They have given up 21 points or fewer in five of the last six games.
"I'd say schematically it's not quite the same and certainly we wouldn't want to take it for granted that it is the same," Belichick said. "I think they've modified a few things or handled some things maybe a little bit differently than what we practiced against for Seattle earlier in the year. There's certainly carryover. It's not like it's two different systems; it's not. I'd say how Richard Sherman plays it to the way Robert Alford plays it is not quite the same, even though it's the same defense -- or some of the calls are the same, I should say."
Brady, though, might have made the most salient point about the Falcons: "They're ahead by 20 points in so many of these games, it's tough to really see 'got to have it'-type defenses."
Vic Beasley, who led the league with 15.5 sacks this season, will be critical to getting pressure on Brady. It would not be a surprise if Quinn gets him rushing up the middle, as Bennett and Clowney did. But whatever wisdom Quinn has from playing the Patriots two years ago -- and whatever insight Pioli and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, both alums of the Patriots' personnel department, can impart about how Belichick and Co. will prepare -- the Falcons will have to execute the plan with an entirely different (and younger) roster. Seven defensive starters are first- or second-year players (including the rookie nickelback Brian Poole). The Falcons are just the second team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl after three rookie defenders -- safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell -- started at least 10 games. (The 1981 49ers were the other team, with defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson starting in Year 1.) Moreover, while Brady and Josh McDaniels remain the engines of the offense, the Patriots are ever-changing -- game planning specifically for each opponent and that opponent's personnel. To expect them to approach Quinn's Falcons exactly as they attacked his Seahawks is overly simplistic.
"It's not so different, but it's so different on our end," Quinn said. "You can look at the opponent's matchup and see who was there, who was different. You look for some scheme-related things. That's no different for them than a lot of other teams because of the style that we play, as well. So, you get certain plays against the style that we run. We're prepared for those just like we are every week. What makes them so unique, they've got a big playbook, and they can feature a lot of different personnel groups in a game, so you have to go through that process to get ready. So having the extra time, we're taking every second of that."