The Atlanta Falcons have had some heartbreaking seasons in their 40-plus years of existence.
Most recently, in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the team got off to starts of 6-2 and 5-2, respectively, before falling apart down the stretch and missing the playoffs.
This came after an appearance in the NFC Championship Game in 2004 and 2007 became infamous after Michael Vick went to prison on dog fighting charges and Bobby Petrino walked out in the middle of the season.
In 1998, Atlanta made the Super Bowl, where they lost to John Elway and the Denver Broncos. The Falcons did not make a return trip to the postseason until 2002 and had an overall record of 16-32 between those seasons.
There were a number of other missed opportunities and season long flameouts that longtime fans would rather not relive, but I have a point to make here.
Prior to last season, when the Falcons went 9-7 and had consecutive winning campaigns for the first time in franchise history, Atlanta invariably followed up successful years with dismal performances.
Not including last year, in the seasons that followed a plus-.500 record, the Falcons are a combined 50-91. Atlanta can be no worse than 12-4 in 2010, but 13-3 would get them the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Who will win this game?
Given that they are playing one of the worst teams in recent memory in the 2-13 Carolina Panthers (a team Atlanta beat 31-10 earlier this season), failure to lock up the top spot would be a monumental collapse.
For reasons unknown, I decided to torture myself as a sports fan. I've been a follower of these Falcons, the New York Mets and the New Jersey Nets for most of my rooting life.
My short-term memory allows me to recall the Mets losing a seven-game division lead with 17 games left to play and missing the playoffs. This is widely regarded as the biggest collapse, not just in Major League Baseball, but in the history of professional sports.
I also saw the Nets follow up back-to-back Finals appearances, both of which they lost, by choking away a fourth quarter lead against Detroit in the Conference Semifinals to be eliminated from the postseason. The Pistons won the title that year and I could not help but wonder, "What If?"
The 2010 Falcons help their cause by being assured of a playoff spot. A loss to Carolina and subsequent drop to the fifth seed, however, would rank pretty high up on my list of late season meltdowns.
Atlanta is currently favored in the Week 17 matchup by 14.5 points and that is being generous to the Panthers.
Of course, the Falcons could be road warriors in the playoffs, a la the 2007 Giants, but that is a low probability equation.
This team needs to show its fans that last year, as well as this entire season, was no fluke and that the franchise has truly turned the corner.
If they can't do that, well, we'll have no choice but to wonder if this organization will ever get it done.