HOUSTON — Steve Bartkowski is 64. He threw his final NFL pass – as an L.A. Ram – in 1986. But there are moments, he concedes, “when I’d like to stand for one game in No. 2’s shoes (meaning Matt Ryan’s) and have the weapons he has around him. He has the best receiver ever to play the game. They’ve got Thunder and Lightning in the backfield.”
The first true franchise quarterback in Falcons history isn’t in Texas yet. He’s flying in Sunday morning. He has a ticket for the Super Bowl. (“I haven’t seen it yet, but I have one.”) He’s picking the Patriots by two touchdowns.
Sorry. That last part was my little joke. The man known as Peachtree Bart is a believer in these Birds. “We are the team of destiny,” Bartkowski said Friday, speaking from Atlanta. “The whole Brotherhood theme is more than lip service. They’re clearly committed to each other and they care about each other.”
Does the Patriots’ offense scare him? “This defense only needs four or five stops. People laughed and scoffed when Matt said in training camp that this was a 30-point-a-game offense. It was like that ESPN thing: ‘C’mon, man.’ But look at it now.”
Then: “The hallmark of Dan Quinn’s defense is guys who can run. That’s what he has – guys who can run and play fast and arrive, as they say, with a sense of urgency.”
What about Bill Belichick, the famous defuser of great offenses? “I wouldn’t want to be sitting in his chair right now or (New England defensive coordinator) Matt Patricia’s. But they’re thinking the same thing: ‘We only need to make them punt a few times.’ ”
As great as Tom Brady is, Bartkowski sees Ryan having a better chance against the Belichick/Patricia defense than the Patriots’ offense will have against the Falcons’ defenders. “With our quick linebackers, I don’t think there’ll be many yards after the catch for (Julian Edelman) and (Chris) Hogan. And (strong safety Keanu Neal) is like (former Bartkowski teammate) Scott Case – when he arrived, you felt it.”
Since you asked, Bartkowski does still think of the lost fourth-quarter lead in a playoff game against Dallas at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Jan. 4, 1981. Had they held on that day, the top-seeded Falcons would have played host to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game. The Eagles wound up losing to the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl.
“ESPN’s nice enough to run that game every Christmas,” Bartkowski said. “That always reminds me. We thought we were the best team in football that year, and in the Super Bowl I’d have been playing against one of my heroes – Jim Plunkett. But that was a while ago. You can’t live in the past.”
Back to the here and now. Bartkowski’s predicted score: “I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I don’t think it’ll be quite as high-scoring as people think. I’ll say 31-24.”
Sounds about right, does it not?