The Super Bowl may be about two teams going head-to-head, but this year, each team’s fans bring their own separate motivation to the match-up.
For Atlanta Falcons fans, the big game against the New England Patriots, is about bringing home the city’s first-ever Super Bowl ring. Atlanta has only won one major sports championship in the past, the Braves’ World Series win in 1995.
For some Patriots fans, it’s about exacting revenge against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for “Deflategate,” a controversy that saw Patriots quarterback Tom Brady suspended for four games – after a lengthy court battle.
None of that stops either group of fans from wanting to beat the other guy, even if the two cities don’t know much about each other.
When Patriots fans were asked what first comes to mind when they think about Atlanta, they gave a variety of answers: Coca-Cola, peaches, Chick-Fil-A, Jimmy Carter, T.I., strip clubs, the 1996 Olympics, peaches, Steve Harvey and more peaches.
When Falcons fans were asked what comes to mind when they think of Boston, most said the cold weather. But they also thought about beans, Mark Wahlberg, great sports teams and Irish-ness.
After all, the Celtics do have a leprechaun for a mascot.
Forty-five minutes before tip-off at a recent Celtics game at TD Garden, fans rush toward the arena. Patriots hats and jerseys are as plentiful as green Celtics gear and shamrocks. Right now, everyone wants to show their pride in Tom Brady and company.
In the middle of the crowd is Andrew Brisson of Peabody, Massachusetts. He can’t stop staring at his cellphone and smiling. He’s just bumped into Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, who’s also headed to the game.
“He was nice enough to give me a little selfie,” Brisson says. “Good stuff.”
Brisson is a big Patriots fan. And he doesn’t give the Falcons much of a chance in Super Bowl 51.
“We expect to win,” he says. “That’s what the Patriots do best. It creates a great environment for the fans.”
The Patriots will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, going after their fifth Lombardi trophy. “One for the thumb,” as fans around New England like to say. For Brisson, it’s all part of what makes Boston better than Atlanta.
“The history, the culture, the fans. Title town. You can’t beat it,” Brisson says.
His buddy, Andy Gordon of Manchester, N.H., is more than ready to take down Atlanta’s sports scene.
“They haven’t been good in baseball since Greg Maddox retired,” Gordon says. “They haven’t been good at basketball since Dominique Wilkins retired. They’ve never been good at football unless you’re talking about the Georgia Bulldogs.
“So when you talk about Atlanta, besides, like, a big airport, I don’t see what the hell they have to offer to the world.”
Back in Atlanta, Korey Alsbrooks obviously disagrees.
“People always underestimate Georgia when it comes to sports, or even music,” Alsbrooks says. “They always take the South for granted for some reason. I really think the Falcons have something to prove this year; to show that we can actually win the Super Bowl.”
Atlanta was revving up for the Super Bowl last Friday. Mayor Kasim Reed hosted a pep rally at City Hall. And at the state Capitol downtown, the plaza was painted red and black for the Falcons.
“Going to Houston baby!” says 47-year-old Lisa Shepard, who’s proudly wearing a Falcons hat.
Shepard is a super fan. She pulls out her phone and shows off selfies she took with Falcons players after the NFC Championship.
“I don’t know if you can see, that’s Jalen Collins,” Shepard says with phone in hand. “He plays defense. So I got to represent with him!”
Atlanta fans have been accused of being part-timers, not really that invested in their pro sports teams. But Shepard’s first job as a teenager was as an usher at the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
“For the Atlanta natives who have supported the Falcons pretty much their whole lifetime, like me, we’re die hard,” Shepard says. “We ride with our team through and through, through the ups and downs.”
She says Falcons fans have had a lot of disappointments. Like many Atlantans, she admits Boston has something to be proud of.
“First of all, we cannot deny their history of winning Super Bowls,” Shepard says. “But I do think that there is a sense of entitlement. They expect to win, they’re not even really giving us a chance.”
Shepard’s right. New Englanders aren’t giving the Falcons much of a chance.
Paul Crawford of Cambridge was working near Harvard Square when asked what he knew about the Falcons.
“Nothing,” he says. “Just that they’re going to lose.”
Falcons fan Lisa Shepard cautions, “Take us lightly if you want to and you’re going to be really upset when we get that win on Sunday.”
Where Atlantans talk sports with a certain southern gentility, Patriots fans are unapologetic with their trash talk. Part of the reason is that New Englanders feel a special bond with their pro athletes.
“I feel like they’re family members,” Crawford says. “They’re going to battle for you. All of them. From the star right down to the guy that only plays a few snaps.”
What’s At Stake?
If Patriots fans like Paul Crawford know anything about Atlanta, it’s that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell went to two straight playoff games at the George Dome rather than visit Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Chants of “Where’s Roger?” rang out during the AFC Championship.
Many New England fans figure the commissioner is avoiding the Patriots because of how he handled “Deflategate” and the four-game suspension he gave Brady. For them, winning the Super Bowl is as much about getting revenge on Goodell as it is about beating the Falcons.
“What Goodell did to Tom was a shame,” Crawford says. “Tom Brady’s a good person and that was ridiculous. That was personal.”
But that’s not how Falcons fans like Donald Morgan see it.
“Tom Brady is the probably the best football player I’ve ever seen before,” Morgan says. “But they always get caught doing something kinda shady – little something happening with them.”
Lisa Shepard thinks Boston fans can be blinded by their loyalty.
“I went to Boston a couple of years ago when the ‘Deflategate’ thing was going on, and I remember seeing ‘Free Brady’ T-shirts,” says Shepard. “And I was like, ‘Are y’all for real? Free Brady? Like seriously?’ But, I mean, they ride hard for their team.”
While fans in Boston see this game as a way to get back at Goodell, many fans in Atlanta see it as a way for the city to prove itself as a real sports town. A sports town like … well, Boston.
“It’s a championship city,” says Atlanta native Patrick Morrison. “They’re known for all their sports. They’re known for good organizations. I got much respect for them, but hey, you can’t win all the time.”
Morrison knows the Falcons have only been to one Super Bowl. In 1999, the Dirty Birds lost to the Denver Broncos 34-19. But he has high hopes for Sunday’s game.
“The Patriots are slow,” says Morrison. “Tom Brady is slow; the receivers are slow. We’ve got more speed on offense and defense and I think we can really beat them. I think we’re on a roll right now and I think it’s Atlanta’s time.”
Meanwhile, Patriots fans like Paul Crawford think it’s their time … again.
“The Patriots are 56 years old,” says Crawford. “We’ve been good for 20 years. So, that means there was a lot of losing. I remember a lot of losing when we were like the Cleveland Browns and we never won a game and we were never on television and we never got a call. We’ve paid our dues. It’s our time. So just deal with it.”