ATLANTA -- Even a player whose last name is Hope understands why many people don't believe the Falcons have any.
Chris Hope, one of only two Falcons players with experience playing in the Super Bowl, said there is a reason the team with the best record in the conference, the top seed in the NFC playoffs and home-field advantage in the NFC Championship Game Sundayis being overlooked.
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"We should be the underdog in most of these games," Falcons safety Hope said this past week. "The teams that we're playing that are left other than us, they had the opportunity to play in the game last year. They had the experience of playing in the championship game. We're the only team that was on the outside looking in."
They're also the only franchise left that has never won a Super Bowl. That's something they're looking to correct with a victory over the 49ers Sunday and then a win over either the Ravens or the Patriots. Until that happens, though, they're comfortable playing the role of the overlooked also-rans.
"Keep questioning," cornerback Asante Samuel said to the many doubters of the Falcons. "We love to go out there and play with a chip on our shoulder. Don't give us the respect until it's all said and done and we've earned it. We got our hard hats on and that's what we plan on doing."
"We love it," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon added. "I'd rather be that way. I've been an underdog all my life. I'm looking forward to it . . . For me, it gives me motivation, fuel to the fire."
The 49ers, meanwhile, are using their experience from last season to drive them. A year ago they were an overtime away from the Super Bowl but lost to the Giants at home in the NFC title game. Even though it is the second year in a row the 49ers are playing in this game, they understand that it is not a given.
"Really it's just the experience, just knowing that this opportunity is rare, it doesn't come around often," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "Although we were here last year, the prior four years before that, we were at home those other times, we didn't make the playoffs . . . So just to have this opportunity again and to be here, it's one of those things we don't take for granted. We know that window for chances like this is slim and we have to take advantage of the opportunity."
Although the 49ers have one of the larger trophy cases in the NFL, replete with five Lombardis, it's been a generation since either team has made it to the Super Bowl. The Falcons were there last after the 1998 season, when they lost to the Broncos. The 49ers haven't been there since the 1994 season, when they beat the Chargers.
Samuel and Hope, the two Super Bowl winners on the Falcons courtesy of the Patriots and Steelers, respectively, have been trying to administer some guidance about what it takes to get there.
"It's the playoffs, so it's another level," Samuel said. "Everyone is walking around with their confidence and their swag."
So is Hope, the player who said he recognizes why the Falcons are being dissed and dismissed.
"We take that, we respect that," Hope said. "But at the same time, they have to beat us."