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Tuesday September 19th, 2017 7:50AM

Falcons hoping 2017 can erase sting of Super Bowl collapse

By The Associated Press
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FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons have made every effort to cover the scars from their unprecedented Super Bowl collapse.

That hasn't been easy. There have been social media jabs from NFC South rivals about the 28-3 blown second-half lead in the 34-28 overtime loss to the Patriots that denied the Falcons their first championship.

Coach Dan Quinn issued a forward-focus mandate in training camp, and his players fell in line by resisting invitations to review the Super Bowl. Observers will be watching closely for any signs of a hangover.

The Falcons have ample reasons to remain upbeat about their immediate future. A young defense should continue to improve after more offseason additions. Most playmakers, including 2016 MVP Matt Ryan, return from an offense that led the league in scoring last season.

Running back Devonta Freeman should be ready after recovering from a preseason concussion. Wide receiver Julio Jones looked explosive in practice in his return from offseason foot surgery. Most importantly, there is quality depth with running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, while tight end Austin Hooper could be ready for a bigger role.

The Falcons finished 0-4 in the preseason, but the always upbeat Quinn said, "We're excited. We're disappointed with the results at the end of some of the preseason games, but we're very excited for our team."

The blown lead in the Super Bowl brought monumental pain to Falcons fans. There is no room for sympathy in football rivalries.

On March 28 — 3-28, get it? — the Carolina Panthers celebrated "Falcons Day" by posting a Twitter photo of their players wearing jersey numbers 3 (Derek Anderson) and 28 (Jonathan Stewart) standing together. The Panthers later deleted the tweet.

Similarly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers deleted from their Twitter account a similar jab at the Falcons using their 28-3 jerseys. Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter, a former Falcons offensive coordinator, apologized to Falcons fans.

Finally, a New Orleans T-shirt company launched a fundraising campaign to mount a 28-3 billboard near the Falcons' new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

From the Falcons' camp, however, there have been few references to the crushing loss.

Ryan said the loss left him in his "dark place" for a short time. Center Alex Mack said "it took a while" for him to recover. But Mack laughed at a follow-up question asking if he had trouble sleeping after the game.

Here are some other things to watch this season:

RAISE THE ROOF: The Falcons broke in the new $1.5 billion stadium with two preseason games, and the facility also has staged two college games — all with the retractable roof closed . There are ongoing issues with the complicated roof, with its eight "petals" designed to open in a manner somewhat like a camera lens. The roof has been opened, but it is not yet ready for automated operation and will remain closed indefinitely for events.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Dome, which stands dark and empty beside the new facility, is scheduled to be demolished in November.

COLLINS' SUSPENSION: Cornerback Jalen Collins apparently will have an opportunity to return after a 10-game suspension . The suspension follows Collins' second violation of the league's policy on performance enhancers. When the suspension was announced, Quinn said there was a "broken" trust with Collins, who also was suspended for the first four games in 2016.

COACHING TURNOVER: There were several changes on Quinn's coaching staff , including new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian. Marquand Manuel was promoted to defensive coordinator. Quinn dismissed last season's defensive coordinator Richard Smith and lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now San Francisco's coach.

DRAFTING FOR DEFENSE: Atlanta's top two picks in the last three NFL drafts have been defensive players. That includes first-rounders Vic Beasley in 2015, Keanu Neal in 2016 and Takkarist McKinley this year. The defense-first focus is paying off, as Beasley led the NFL with 15 1-2 sacks last year. The Falcons held four of their last six regular-season opponents under 20 points last season, and led Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 31-0 in the NFC championship game before winning 44-21.

TOUGH DIVISION: The difficulty of play in the NFC South may help to keep the Falcons focused on winning their division before they worry about a return to the Super Bowl. "That's where the mindset has to be to get where you want to go," Quinn said. "It starts with your division."

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