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The Atlanta Falcons’ 51-year trek to Super Bowl LI

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The Dirty Birds are as old as the championship game, but it’s been a long, long road toward the ultimate glory

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers
The Atlanta Falcons in 1984.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

When the Super Bowl kicks off Sunday, the Dirty Birds will be there. Amazingly. You may have heard about this.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Falcons last, and only, appearance in the title game — but that’s not for lack of an illustrious history in the city.

In celebration of Atlanta’s trip to the Super Bowl, here’s a quick look back at the team’s 51 years in the city.

It all started in 1965, when the NFL offered a franchise in the growing league to then Executive Vice President of Life Insurance Company Rankin Smith, Jr. Just a year later the team took flight, playing their first season in the brand-new Atlanta Stadium, which they shared with the Braves, who’d relocated from Milwaukee the same year. Imagine gaining two pro teams at once.

Atlanta Stadium under construction, just south of downtown.
via Atlanta Time Machine

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, as the stadium was later renamed, was constructed for just $18 million and in only 12 months — a staggering feat considering the Falcons’ new roost is costing 89 times more and has been under construction for several years.

Of course, the stadium wasn’t without its share of controversy as it displaced the Washington-Rawson neighborhood.

The first dozen years in the stadium, the Falcons struggled to soar, posting only two winning seasons in that timespan. In fact, it wasn’t until 1980 that the then 15-year-old team managed to snag a division title. Hatchlings don’t take flight overnight.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers
The Falcons taking on the 49ers in 1986 — Atlanta didn’t score in the game.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

While the early 1980s marked an upswing for the team, it was still tough going for the Falcons at Atlanta-Fulton County. But changes were on the way.

By the end of the decade, there was a push for the Falcons to get a modern roost of their own in downtown. Plans were drawn up for the construction of an indoor stadium, the Georgia Dome, to be built just south of the Georgia World Congress Center.

Atlanta Scenics Downtown
An aerial view of downtown Atlanta, with the newly completed Georgia Dome beyond.
Getty Images

In September of 1992, the Falcons beat the New York Jets in the first pro football game in what was then the largest indoor sports venue by capacity in the world. The stadium cost $214 million when it was constructed — approximately $365 million today. A relative bargain.

The investment worked out, as the team managed to appear in postseason play in two of the next six seasons, winning its way all the way to the Super Bowl in 1998 to play the Broncos.

Terrell Davis #30
The Falcons try to stop Terrell Davis of the Broncos during the Super Bowl.
Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Atlanta rallied around the team, celebrating them all the way to Pro Bowl Stadium in Miami. Alas, more than a few Atlantans lost some money — and their dignity thanks to the “Dirty Bird” dance — when the Falcons ended up losing that game 34-19.

Of course, since 1998, Atlanta has achieved various years of success, including the Michael Vick phenomenon that notched playoff successes. More recently, the Falcons have appeared in postseason play four times in the last six seasons and have captured the division title three times in as many years.

Now, with construction wrapping up on the team’s new roost, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons are off to represent Atlanta in the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

A rending of the finished stadium’s glass wall facing downtown.
Atlanta Falcons

Rise Up!

The Georgia Dome

1 Georgia Dome Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30314 404 223 9200 Visit Website

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

441 Martin Luther King Jr Dr NW, Atlanta, GA 30313 Visit Website