ATLANTA — To fully understand the magnitude of Sunday’s divisonal round playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, one must look at the whole picture.
Rewind back to 2008, Matt Ryan’s rookie season and Mike Smith’s first as head coach of the Falcons. The Falcons were coming off of an absolute disaster the season before with Michael Vick being convicted on dog fighting charges and Bobby Petrino high-tailing his way to Arkansas with three games left in the season.
The Falcons were in disarray.
The responsibility of turning the franchise around was on the shoulders of Ryan and Smith from Day 1. In Ryan’s rookie season, most expected a better season than the one before but no one expected the Falcons to go 11-5 and make the playoffs. Ryan had an impressive rookie season, winning the offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Ryan and the Falcons traveled to Arizona to play Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs and were defeated by the eventual NFC champions, 30-24. Even with the loss, it was clear that the Falcons, who were young, also had talent. Most people would have agreed the Falcons had the potential to do great things in the future.
Fast forward two years to 2010, the Falcons finished the season 13-3 and earned the top seed in the NFC along with a first-round bye. In that playoff game, the Falcons faced a Green Bay Packers team that had won their last three games. Along with that, the two teams had played each other seven weeks earlier at the Georgia Dome.
In that regular season game, the Falcons won, but needed overtime to do so. In the playoffs, coming off the bye week, the Falcons failed to play up to their potential and lost in embarrassing fashion, 48-21. Just like when the Falcons lost to the Cardinals in 2008, the Packers went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl that season.
Then there was last season, the Falcons finished the season 10-6, grabbing a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. They traveled to MetLife Stadium to play the New York Giants. Atlanta played relatively well in the first half, only trailing by five going into the locker room. The Falcons failed to play as well in the second half and the Giants pulled away, winning 24-2. Just like with the Cardinals and Packers, the Giants went on to play in the Super Bowl.
That’s three playoff losses to three eventual NFC champions and two eventual Super Bowl champions. It was clear that changes needed to be made and that’s what the Falcons did in the offseason. They brought in new coordinators and a new attitude and rode both to another 13-3 record and top seed in the NFC.
Atlanta plans on using past lessons learned to change things this time around. When asked what he learned from his two playoff experiences, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said, “We learned that if you don’t come to play, you’ll get your butt kicked.”
Not very many teams get the chance to redeem themselves for past failures, but the Falcons do.
“Stuff happens but the best part about it is you get another oppportunity in the playoffs to come back and keep the train rolling and finish what we came to do,” strong safety William Moore said.
When the Falcons started 8-0 this season, credit was oftentimes negated by their playoff failures. They have the chance to eliminate that criticism Sunday. There is no question that with the 0-3 mark, there is pressure on the Falcons to win on Sunday. They have to win a playoff game to get the monkey off their back.
“You want to go out there and leave your mark,” said tight end Tony Gonzalez. “Obviously, in the playoffs, it steps up even more because that’s really kind of where your legacy comes in. What you do in the playoffs is what the majority of people remember.
“Like I said, it’s not pressure, it’s a little bit of pressure, a little bit of anxiety but that’s good, you need that, I need that. I like having a little bit of anxiety because it keeps me running in the right direction, it keeps me going.”
Although the playoff record looms large over Ryan and this team, he said he doesn’t think it’s something the Falcons should be worried about come Sunday. “In the past, we haven’t played our best and I think our focus needs to not be about that but to be on what we can do to set ourselves up to play our best.”
For the Falcons, it’s what they’ve been waiting for since Jan. 8, 2012 when they only put up two points against the Giants. It’s the chance to prove themselves to everyone that has doubted them all season. Sunday is the first step towards taking the respect and credit that no one wanted to give them this season. The playoffs are here and it’s time for the Falcons to step up and show they belong with the game’s elite.
“It’s showtime, everybody has to take their game to the next level and that’s how you have to approach the game and look at it,” said cornerback Asante Samuel. “It’s playoff time, thats what everybody do.”