TAMPA — You remember the first time anybody saw the Atlanta Falcons in a game that mattered this season?
A quarterback threw four touchdown passes and looked like the league MVP. A big, fast wide receiver was unstoppable. The defense swarmed to the football like ants to a picnic. They were everybody's chic pick to win the NFC South and maybe go to Super Bowl. ESPN, NFLN and all the alphabet networks kept fawning over them.
Wait, it was the Bucs who actually beat Atlanta 31-24 in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 11.
That happened, right?
Remember, Dirk Koetter went to the podium afterward and immediately declared, "Good guys win!"
Well, forget it because those same Falcons are playing in Super Bowl LI in Houston against the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, Koetter and general manager Jason Licht are scouting the Senior Bowl.
So what happened?
"Well, it's really difficult to win one game in this league. It really is," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "Honestly, it's tough. And to string together and keep guys healthy, and to get the opportunity and to be playing your best at the right time, there are a lot of things that have to go into it."
And the Bucs?
They won the season opener in Atlanta when Jameis Winston threw four touchdown passes.
They still got off to a 3-5 start.
They were tied with the Falcons for the division lead with three games to play.
And they finished 9-7.
For the NFC Champions, their recovery from that season-opening loss was swift but not complete until sometime after the bye week.
The Falcons won four straight —- at Oakland (35-28), at New Orleans (45-32), home against Carolina (48-33) and at Denver (23-16). Unfortunately for Atlanta, that was followed by losses at Seattle (26-24) and an overtime loss against the Chargers (33-30) at home.
During that stretch, the Falcons defense allowed nearly 28 points per game.
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Let's be clear, this not the same Falcons team that the Bucs played in Week 1.
They led the NFL by averaging nearly 34 points per game. That explosiveness with Ryan, Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman was evident all season, but the precision has improved.
Atlanta and New England committed the NFL's fewest turnovers with 11.
The Falcons defense made the biggest strides under coach Dan Quinn, who brought the system from Seattle where he served as the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Six of 11 starters are first- and second-year players.
Winston hit deep balls to Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the opener. Charles Sims had a 23-yard catch and run for a TD.
But against the Bucs in Atlanta, safety Keanu Neal, Falcons first-round pick from Florida, was out with a knee injury. Cornerback Jalen Collins was suspended for violating the league policy on performance enhancing drugs. Collins who had an interception and forced a fumble against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
"He had a difficult start to the season, and much like some other players, you get those opportunities, and when you take advantage of them and you come through, it just builds confidence," Quinn said.
The Falcons lost defensive tackle Derrick Shelby, who started against Tampa Bay, to an Achilles injury after six games. But veteran Dwight Freeney stepped in and has three sacks.
Coincidentally, the Falcons turnaround on defense sort of mirrored the Bucs. After the game, they talked about improved communication and a better understanding of the scheme, allowing linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell to play faster.
And then there's the injury factor: Tampa Bay running backs Doug Martin and Sims missed a combined 15 games. Atlanta was the only team to have all five offensive linemen start every game.
"The improvement is a byproduct of everyone growing," Quinn said. "And we're playing faster now."
And on Super Bowl Sunday, the Falcons will still be playing.