The Falcons have experienced nothing but playoff frustration since 2005.
ATLANTA — Jim Mora was the Atlanta Falcons’ first-year coach on Jan. 15, 2005, with gigs in Seattle and UCLA still ahead of him.
Michael Vick was the Falcons’ quarterback, his foray into dogfighting not yet a national cause célèbre. George W. Bush was five days from starting his second term as president, while Barack Obama had been sworn in as a first-term Illinois senator just two weeks earlier.
The Falcons went out and thumped the St. Louis Rams 47-17 at the Georgia Dome — the last time the franchise won a playoff game.
“We just felt like everything we did, they didn’t have an answer for,” recalled center Todd McClure, the only current Falcon to play in that game. “It was a great feeling, and one I hope to have again pretty soon.”
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The Falcons, however, have experienced nothing but playoff frustration since then. It’s a reality that hangs heavily over Sunday’s game with the Seahawks. The Falcons may have earned the NFC’s top seed, but as an NFL.com columnist wrote recently, “The Falcons might be the most disrespected 13-3 team in NFL history.”
“No one’s going to get on our bandwagon,” said veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. “No one’s going to commit to our bandwagon, because we haven’t won a playoff game. We understand that, so we have to go out there and take care of business.”
Gonzalez is likely headed to retirement, so he yearns for the first playoff win of his Hall of Fame career after five combined losses in Kansas City and Atlanta. Coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, who came in together in 2008, need a victory to end the whispers that they wilt in the postseason.
The entire organization, in fact, is weary of being asked why they can’t win when it counts. They would like to beat Seattle on Sunday not so much for validation, but “just to hush up all the naysayers,” said safety Thomas DeCoud.
“I think we’re ready to put ‘em (the playoff struggles) behind us, but you keep bringing them up,” added McClure.
After routing the Rams, Atlanta lost in the conference title game the following week to Philadelphia, 27-10. Since Smith took over after the lamentable 13-game regime of Bobby Petrino in 2007, the Falcons have soared.
In the regular season, anyway. With Ryan starting as a rookie, the Falcons transformed from 4-12 in ’07 to 11-5 in ’08, earning a wild-card berth. But they lost in the playoffs to the Cardinals in Arizona, 30-24.
Two years later, the Falcons rolled to a 13-3 record and the NFC’s No. 1 seed — sound familiar? — only to get thrashed at home in the playoffs 48-21 by Green Bay. Ryan threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in that one.
Throw in last year’s 24-2 first-round road loss to the Giants, and the regional angst is understandable. The Falcons are extremely tough at home — 33-5 in the regular season under Ryan, 7-1 this season with the only loss coming in the final game after they’d clinched the top seed — but even that edge proved insufficient in 2010.
The Falcons, however, believe some things are different this year. Ryan has had arguably his finest season under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Ryan has an array of weapons at his disposal in Gonzalez and standout wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones. One of the game’s key matchups will be Atlanta’s explosive passing game against Seattle’s talented secondary.
“It’s kind of hard to guard all of us,” White said. “Especially because they play so much one-high, man-to-man, three-deep coverages. It’s basically one on one all across the field.
“Whatever Matt thinks is a good matchup, he’s going to throw the ball to … every time we have an opportunity in one on one, we’ve got to win. That’s what coach has been preaching all week long, and we have to go out there and do it.”
On defense, veteran cornerback Asante Samuel was brought in this year to help bring a winning edge to Atlanta. Samuel owns two Super Bowl rings from the Patriots and coined the phrase “winsmanship” on Wednesday to describe what he can add to the Falcons’ playoff efforts.
Asante cryptically dubbed himself “Swag 100,” and said: “It’s showtime. Everyone has to take their game to the next level.”
The Falcons have given up the fifth-fewest points in the NFL despite ranking 24th in yardage allowed, a testament to 31 takeaways, fourth-most in the league. The Falcons believe they are playing with more confidence defensively this year.
“He (Samuel) has a huge hand in that,” DeCoud said. “We’re like, ‘So you can say that? OK, good, let’s go.’ He definitely had a hand in us gaining our swagger and our high level of play this year.”
The Falcons are particularly wary of Marshawn Lynch, who gained 1,590 yards in the regular season and added 132 in Seattle’s playoff win over Washington. Atlanta was No. 21 in the NFL against the run, and gave up 4.8 yards per carry, 29th out of 32 teams.
“You’ve got to get multiple sets of pads on Marshawn,” Smith said.
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has caught their attention as well — including film footage of him doing some lead blocking for Lynch last week.
“I saw that. He’s a tough kid,” said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. “Seeing Russell out there, blocking for Marshawn, you have to take your hat off to that. But I don’t think they want their quarterback doing so much blocking.”
The Falcons are prepared to see Wilson run the read option, which Seattle has used to great effectiveness. But Atlanta has wins this year over three mobile quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Vick.
When it comes to the mounting playoff pressure, Ryan said, “I don’t worry about it. I don’t think about it.”
But everyone else will, until the Falcons win one.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org