NFL football in Atlanta turns 49 on Monday

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The NFL came to Atlanta 49 years ago Monday, with the league awarding a franchise to a group led by the late Rankin M. Smith on this date in 1965.

The club, eventually named the Falcons, would begin play in 1966 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a home shared with Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, who moved from Milwaukee after the 1965 campaign.

The Falcons struggled at the start. They were a combined 6-35-1 in their first three seasons, and they did not have a winning season until 1971. Their first postseason berth wouldn’t come until 1978, when they defeated the Eagles in Round One and pushed the eventual NFC-champion Cowboys in a seven-point loss in Round Two. However, Atlanta would not win another playoff game for another 13 seasons.

Finally, in 1998, the Falcons broke through, stunning the Vikings as big underdogs in the NFC title game before falling to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. The next season, though, the Falcons slid backwards, posting a 5-11 mark, the first of three straight losing campaigns.

Sustaining success was long a problem for Atlanta. The franchise didn’t post back-to-back winning seasons in any of its first four decades of existence. But then came the club’s strongest run to date — five straight winning seasons, including four playoff berths, from 2008 through 2012. Still, truly special prosperity eluded the Falcons, with the team winning just one postseason game in these five campaigns.

Nevertheless, as they near their 50th birthday, the Falcons are in good health. A new stadium is on the way to replace the Georgia Dome, their home for just a little more than two decades. The franchise has strong leadership, with owner Arthur Blank, G.M. Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith all playing key roles in the team’s recent ascent. The roster has a good deal of talent, especially on offense, with quarterback Matt Ryan entering his prime.

When it comes to Atlanta and football, the collegiate game may first jump to mind. There aren’t many other major U.S. cities, if any at all, where the pulse of college football beats so strongly. But the pro game is well-established in Atlanta, too, and the roots are only growing deeper.