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HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots forces a fumble from Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Matt Ryan didn’t want to go there. Nor did he need to.

There, in this case being Houston on the first Sunday of February in 2017, when his Falcons owned a seemingly insurmountable yet ultimately unsustainable lead over the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

28-3.

Screenshots of the FOX television graphic just shy of the third quarter’s 2-minute mark captured the score in perpetuity. Shared by thousands and viewed by millions via memes, it’s still printed and sold on t-shirts and flags.

All constant reminders of a night none of us can forget. But one that, understandably, Ryan cares not to remember.

“I’m not worried about what happened in the winter of 2017,” he said on Monday, at the start of a short week of preparation for Thursday night’s encounter with the Patriots. “You can’t go back and win that game.”

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons walks off the field after losing to the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 05: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons walks off the field after losing to the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Ryan is one of only a handful of players from that game still in Atlanta. None of the five Falcons who scored the touchdowns and extra points that built “28-3” remain with the team.

Ryan and left tackle Jake Matthews are the lone current Falcons who started Super Bowl LI on offense. Only Grady Jarrett, who sacked Tom Brady three times, and Deion Jones are still with the team after starting LI on defense.

Along the same lines, with James White on injured reserve, none of the players who scored the 34 points needed to complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history are active for the Patriots.

And while the current Pats (6-4) won their fourth straight over the Browns last Sunday, the mostly unfamiliar Falcons were throttled in Dallas, 43-3, to fall to 4-5 under a first-year head coach and general manager. The thrashing by the Cowboys prevented Atlanta from rising above .500 for the first times since the end of the 2017 season.

Those Falcons were beaten in the NFC Divisional playoffs at Philadelphia. The franchise has gone 22-35 since the start of the following fall, transitioning from Dan Quinn to Arthur Smith on the sideline and from Thomas Dimitroff to Terry Fontenot in the front office.

Still, there is relevance to revisiting a past meeting of the Pats and Falcons, despite their vastly different lineups playing, in Atlanta’s case, very different schemes. It’s just not the game we — if not Ryan — tend to talk about most.

  • ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29: Tony Gonzalez #88 of the Atlanta Falcons recieves a pass against the defenese of Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter of the game at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GA – SEPTEMBER 29: Tony Gonzalez #88 of the Atlanta Falcons recieves a pass against the defenese of Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots in the first quarter of the game at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Like Thursday night, the last time the Pats visited Atlanta in Week 4 of 2013, they took a primetime stage, surviving a Sunday night encounter with a 30-23 victory at the Georgia Dome.

    Then a 28-year-old in his sixth NFL season, Ryan threw primarily to three elite talents. The Falcons generally lined up with Roddy White and Julio Jones at receiver and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez at tight end.

    Against the Pats, Ryan ended the evening with 34 completions in 54 attempts, passing for 421 yards and two scores. He targeted his “big three” on 36 of those throws. And though White was slowed by a bum ankle and held to three receptions, Jones’s six catches totaled 108 yards and Gonzalez’s 12 grabs (on 14 targets) netted 149 yards and two touchdowns.

    Now 36 and in his 14th pro campaign, Ryan enters this evening with a much less talented group. He’ll be without receiver Calvin Ridley and possibly without ex-Patriot Cordarrelle Patterson, who has gained 776 yards with seven touchdowns from scrimmage but was limited by a bad ankle to 15 snaps on Sunday.

    Therefore, the focal point of New England’s defense figures to be Ryan’s clear and present favorite, dangerous rookie Kyle Pitts. As the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft out of Florida, he leads the Falcons with 40 receptions, averaging 15.2 yards a catch.

  • ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 03: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up before the game against the Washington Football Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up before the game against the Washington Football Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    Pitts possesses the dynamic skills and athleticism of a sleek receiver in a 6-foot-6, 246-pound body. His build is similar to Gonzalez, who played at 6-5, 247.

    On Thursday night, Pitts is likely to attract a full 60 minutes of the same kind of attention the Pats paid Gonzalez late in the final moments of the aforementioned 2013 affair. Especially after Atlanta reached New England’s 13-yard line with 59 seconds to go.

    Thanks to a Ryan-to-Jones left-sideline strike for 49 yards, the Falcons had the Patriots on their heels, backs to their end zone. And that’s when the Pats put Gonzalez, literally, in a vice. Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins defended him, as NBC’s Cris Collinsworth remarked, like a gunner trying to cover punts.

    Basically, thought fought to keep Gonzalez out of the end zone by preventing him from getting off the line (see below). Referee Walt Coleman’s crew allowed the contact to occur uncalled, much to the visible frustration of Gonzalez.

    With Atlanta’s most effective red-zone option removed from Ryan’s equation, on 4th-and-7 from the 10-yard line, he tossed toward White in the end zone, being covered by Aqib Talib.

  • ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29: Aqib Talib #31 of the New England Patriots breaks up a touchdown reception intended for Roddy White #84 of the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GA – SEPTEMBER 29: Aqib Talib #31 of the New England Patriots breaks up a touchdown reception intended for Roddy White #84 of the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    The Pats were determined not to let Gonzalez beat them. He didn’t. Ryan’s final attempt landed incomplete.

    It’s unlikely that Thursday night’s officials, led by referee Land Clark, will be as forgiving as Coleman’s crew eight years ago. Or even that Pats would get just as physical with Pitts as they did with Gonzalez. Not for the full 60 minutes or full field, anyway.

    Nevertheless, with Mayo now coaching linebackers, we shouldn’t be surprised — particularly if the Falcons are in tight and the game gets tight — if the Pats dial up something similar to his playing past in Atlanta.