Patriots, Falcons hit Super Bowl LI as different (yet similar) teams

An entire generation of football fans in the Bay State and beyond has come of age having never known anything but metronomic victory, as reliable and anticipated in New England as the change of leaves and the spring thaw. An entire generation of fans in the South's capital has grown up knowing nothing of the sort, buffeted by the peaks and valleys of scandal and success, tragedy and triumph.

But the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons arrive at Super Bowl LI looking remarkably similar, with golden-armed quarterbacks so familiar with each other Tom Brady said he regularly texts Matt Ryan and a stable of young talent arrayed around them. While the franchises have traveled wildly divergent paths, their starting points to this peak were nearly synchronized games that included disarray -- with fallout that'll still be felt this Sunday.

Twenty years ago, the Patriots were in another Super Bowl, the franchise's second, and they were smashed by the Green Bay Packers, 35-21. It would be Brett Favre's only championship, but it stands out in Patriots lore for a bizarre subtopic that would set in motion the events that, ultimately, delivered a hoodie-swaddled gift named Bill Belichick.

Robert Kraft, now an NFL stalwart, was a new owner then -- he bought the Patriots in 1994 -- and he inherited a legend on the sideline, Bill Parcells. Parcells was working on a year-to-year basis, a situation with which Kraft was not comfortable. Parcells already was chafing under his lack of final personnel control, which inspired his famous assessment: "If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."

But unbeknownst to the public, during the run-up to the Super Bowl, Parcells already was quietly talking to the New York Jets. When it was over, he did not fly home from New Orleans with his team, and he suddenly left the Patriots to take an advisory job -- which morphed into the head-coaching spot -- with the Jets. That was the start of a border war with the Jets that has yet to entirely end. And while the Patriots hired Pete Carroll, the Jets had Parcells -- and Belichick as his defensive coordinator.

After the 1999 season, when Parcells stepped down as the Jets head coach, the job shifted to Belichick, which Parcells had arranged with team management. A day later, Belichick turned his introductory press conference into an epic departure, scribbling a resignation note on a sheet of loose-leaf paper.

"I resign as HC of the NYJ."

It took a month, which included meetings with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and an antitrust lawsuit filed by Belichick against the Jets, before Belichick would arrive in New England, complete with personnel power. Parcells brokered the deal when he called Kraft.

"I told him it was Darth Vader calling and he said he knew who that was," Parcells said.

Parcells said the settlement -- in which the Jets received a first-round draft pick in exchange for releasing Belichick from his contract -- was a win-win for everybody.

But, of course, it was not. In his first year of managing the draft, Belichick used a sixth-round draft pick on a skinny and slow quarterback from Michigan, Tom Brady. By Brady's second training camp, Belichick was so impressed he pondered starting him, but stuck with the veteran Drew Bledsoe. When Bledsoe was hurt on a hit by the Jets' Mo Lewis in the second game of the 2001 season, Brady took the starting reins that he's held since.

Fifteen years later, the Patriots continue to redefine the NFL dynasty. New England won its first Super Bowl in the 2001 season and won three in four years. Belichick once answered one reporter's question about whether he had expected this from Brady.

"If we had known, we wouldn't have waited until the sixth round to take him."

New England won its most recent title just two years ago. For as much intrigue as seems to circulate around the Patriots -- two different investigations into their tactics, the endless roster shuffling of even accomplished players -- there have been three constants: Belichick, Brady and victories.

"If I had No. 12, my life would have been much smoother, too," one personnel executive from a different NFL team said.

This is the seventh Super Bowl appearance by the Brady-Belichick tandem, almost twice as many as any other quarterback-coach pairing. Their only apparent kryptonite has been the New York Giants.

The Falcons have not been quite that lucky.

Two years after that fateful PatriotsSuper Bowl appearance in January of 1997, the Falcons went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season. It was, until now, the franchise's only appearance -- and it was marred before it even kicked off. Safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, instantly becoming a cautionary tale that is retold to players before every Super Bowl since.

The Falcons lost the game to the Denver Broncos, 34-19, but Robinson's arrest was just the beginning of tumult. Arthur Blank bought the team three years later. Like Kraft, he inherited a coach who had been to a Super Bowl, Dan Reeves. But with the Falcons also came a dynamic rookie quarterback, the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, who would soon become the NFL's biggest star.

Soon after he bought the team, Blank once told the Wall Street Journal, he had breakfast with Kraft. Kraft warned him that most of what Blank did after founding the Home Depot would be similar to running the team, except he would get much more media attention. Blank thought that would not be true.

"He looked at me, smiling and winking and said, 'You don't quite get it, but you will,' " Blank told the Journal.

Michael Vick's playing style was in sharp contrast to Brady's -- he was a blazing-fast runner -- that offered high risk and high reward. Atlanta alternately made the playoffs, including the 2004 NFC Championship Game, and crashed to losing records, underscoring one of the most remarkable statistics about the Falcons: until 2009, the team had never had back-to-back winning seasons.

And then, in 2007, the bottom fell out. Vick's involvement in a dog-fighting ring was revealed in April. By August, he had pled guilty to federal felony charges and been suspended indefinitely by the league, with Blank making it clear he would not be welcomed back. In December, one day after Vick had been sentenced to serve 23 months in federal prison, the Falcons' first-year coach, Bobby Petrino, stunned the team by resigning just 13 games into his tenure. He never met with his players, bidding them farewell in a four-sentence mimeographed note left in each locker. The team was left in disarray and local fans, many of whom remained loyal to Vick, were furious at his treatment.

The franchise was viewed as laughable, perceived as a train wreck both within the NFL and outside. The first turning point was hiring Thomas Dimitroff as the general manager and Mike Smith as the coach before the 2008 season. With their first-round draft pick that year, the Falcons selected Ryan. Stability followed, although success came with a ceiling -- the Falcons strung together five straight winning seasons, but never made a trip to the Super Bowl. Three years ago, Dimitroff brought in his long-time friend Scott Pioli who, like Dimitroff, had spent years working in the Patriots' personnel department. Following the 2014 season, they fired Smith and hired Dan Quinn as their new coach. And they began to turn over their roster. Six defensive starters were drafted in the last two years.

"When Dan came in, he was crystal clear about what he wanted and each of his assistant coaches were crystal clear on what they wanted -- each position, what to look for," Pioli said during a Senior Bowl interview on the NFL Network. "The interesting thing is Thomas and I come from a background where we were looking stylistically for a completely different type of player; we come from two-gap systems, from bigger stronger guys. But once that was identified, we went to work, we rewrote a lot of the things we scouted."

Two years into their reboot, the Falcons are finally in the Super Bowl again. It is the same amount of time it took Belichick to deliver the Patriots' first championship. The next generation of fans await the results.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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