The Falcons go 13-3. But the record is a mere launching pad for debates that begin with, "Yeah, but."
Matt Ryan throws 32 touchdown passes, outplays Drew Brees, a couple of Mannings, and others. But we hear, "Yeah, but."
The defense ranks among NFL leaders with 20 interceptions and 31 takeaways. Here it comes again: "Yeah, but."
Today, the NFC's No. 1 seed will play at home against the No. 5 seed Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons, the No. 1 seed, are favored by only a hiccup. Point spreads are about perception. Perceptions about the Falcons stem from the fact that their obvious success in recent regular seasons (56-24 since 2008) has been submarined by playoff fizzles (0-3).
Regular seasons get teams to the playoffs. Playoffs define franchises and legacies.
The most recent snapshot of the Falcons' legacy is a 24-2 playoff loss last January in New York. Their only points came on a safety. Defense 2, Offense 0.
An organization doesn't draft, sign and trade for the likes of Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers to get to January and wind up with bupkis.
This next game needs to be about affirmation. Management has invested heavily in the offense. If the Falcons finally show an ability to survive and advance, it will be because of what brought them this far: offense. They have as many weapons as any team in the playoffs. They have a quarterback who is having a career season in the holy trinity of quarterback statistics (completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns) and a new coordinator (Dirk Koetter) who has managed to keep defenses guessing despite the absence of a running game.
This game is about the Falcons trying to exorcise memories of some humiliating numbers against the Giants: 0 points, 247 yards, 4-of-14 on third down. Because if they can do that, they'll win.
Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback now of ESPN, said this week of the Falcons, "The whole narrative of who they are is at stake. There's nothing they can do from September to December that we even paid much attention to. ... (Because of) what happened last year, you're going to see overzealousness that I think will pay off. The fact that they scored two points, we've been hearing that. They won game after game this fall, and even people at home were saying, 'Oh, yeah, but you scored two in January.'"
Some are making this game about Ryan, who's trying to break through the playoff ceiling. Some are making it about Smith, who has overseen a terrific franchise turnaround on the sideline in his five seasons, but also three underwhelming playoff performances. Some are making it about Tony Gonzalez, a Hall of Fame-in-waiting tight end who is "95 percent" likely to retire after the season and never has won a playoff game in 16 years (0-5). But it's really about everybody, particularly on offense, because that side of the ball is the one most in need of redemption.
Ryan says this year is different, better. The plays travel from his head to his arm and feet faster. He has a great comfort level with teammates and the play-calling.
"I'm confident in the guys around me," Ryan said. "Being in the second year with Julio now adds to that confidence level. Knowing Roddy and playing with him five years helps. I've been playing with Tony for four seasons. Those situations help when you're in the heat of battle." Gonzalez has taken to calling the Falcons' attack, "The P.Y.P offense. Pick your poison."
Most defenses this season have tried and failed. The Falcons ranked seventh in scoring (26.2), eighth in touchdowns (46), third in red-zone scoring (317 points, behind only New England and Denver), sixth in passing yardage (281.8) and eighth in total yardage (369.1).
The team's problems on offense in playoff losses to Arizona (2008 season), Green Bay (2010) and New York (2011) are best are illustrated by Ryan's stat line: three touchdowns, four interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), two fumbles (one returned for a touchdown) and 10 sacks (one resulting in a safety). If you're keeping score, that's 16 points by opposing defenses.
"We're a different team," Ryan said. "We're a different group than we were last year (in New York)."
He said he has changed the way he prepares for games, changed his routine. But when asked to elaborate, he smiled and said, "Uh, no." Let him have his secret. If they win, there will be time to probe that topic later.
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