Two Januarys ago Mike Smith and Matt Ryan weren’t concerned about answering a storm of questions from the media about what it takes to win a game in the postseason. Instead they were gearing up to play the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs on a Saturday night in Atlanta. At that point in time Matt Ryan was viewed at as the next great young quarterback. His poise, quick arm, and ability to change plays/read the defense at the line of scrimmage made some scouts believe it was the second coming of Peyton Manning. But instead the other quarterback in the game stole the spotlight.
Last January instead of having the comfy cushion of a bye week and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, Smith and Ryan stared at a daunting road game against a simmering New York Giants team with a hall of fame coach and THE quarterback that stopped the only perfect season in the modern era of professional football. Daunting, yes. Impossible, no.
Now 728 days after the opinion began that Atlanta can’t win when teams become immortalized, the Falcons have perhaps one more chance to try and flip the public perception that has clouded the team since that embarrassing 24-2 loss in East Rutherford, NJ. Every time the Falcons were brought up in columns, on the radio, or on television this season, the first sentence that would be said regarding the Falcons was something like this: “We’ve seen this out of the Falcons for the last two seasons, so it doesn’t matter what they do in the regular season. Let’s see what they do come January.”
It’s a fair argument for sure, but the two teams that beat Atlanta weren’t just flukes who showed up for one game and then flamed out in the next round. Let’s look at the last two losses for the Falcons in the playoffs.
2010 Green Bay Packers
This version of the Packers featured an emerging Aaron Rodgers, a group of receivers that would kill you with their speed and playmaking ability, and above all they were built to play in a dome. That year the Packers played in five dome games, but I’ll throw away the Lions game in week 14 because Rodgers had to leave early on due to a concussion.
Week 11 @ Minnesota – Green Bay won 31-3. Rodgers: 22-31/301/4-0, Greg Jennings had a vintage line of 7/152/3. The Vikings were still in the embryonic stages of the Christian Ponder era and Peterson wasn’t running like a man possessed.
Week 12 @ Atlanta – Green Bay lost 20-17. This was one of the top regular season games of 2010. Going into the game the Falcons were 8-2, the Packers were 7-3. Matt Bryant gave Atlanta the lead after converting a 47 yard field goal with 13 seconds left on the clock. Rodgers had another great indoor performance: 26-35/344/1 (he also rushed 12 times for 51 yds and a score). Matt Ryan was ultra-efficient that day, 24-28/197/1. Michael Turner was still the burner at that point: 23/110/1.
Divisional round – Green Bay @ Atlanta. The Packers exploded for 28 points in the second quarter and never looked back. Rodgers was a stone cold trained assassin of the pigskin in this one: 31-36/366/3-0. In the second quarter Matt Ryan completed four passes for 28 yds and was picked off twice, both of those interceptions resulted in Green Bay touchdowns, in the same quarter Rodgers did this: 14-16/179/2 TD’s. In 15 minutes Atlanta not only went from being up 7-0 to starring at a two touchdown hole, but there was a wide spread agreement that the Packers were the best team left in the playoffs.
In Super Bowl XLV (played in Jerry World) Rodgers was actually a tad inefficient number wise (24-39), but made the big throws when they needed to be made. He finished with 304 yards, three more touchdowns, and you guessed it zero interceptions.
In four dome games that year Rodgers stats were: 103-141 (73%)/1,315/11-0. He was simply unstoppable playing indoors two seasons ago.
2011 New York Giants
We all know the story of the 2011 Giants, but no one remembers the 2011 Falcons. One more win in the regular season would have vaulted them past the Saints and gave Mike Smith his second straight NFC South crown. Instead the Falcons were stuck as a five seed and had to hit the road in the wild card round and let’s just say that the road wasn’t exactly friendly to Matt Ryan last season. Here are his home and away splits (completions-attempts/total yards/average yards per completion/TD-INT ratio/QB rating) from last season:
Home: 152-235 (64.7%)/1,784/17-5/7.59/102.9
Away: 195-331 (58.9%)/2.393/12-7/7.23/84.6
Now let’s compare those to Eli’s splits from last year:
Home: 183-294 (62.2)/2,498/8.5/14-9/92.5
Away: 176-295 (59.7)/2,435/8.25/15-7/93.3
Eli’s completion percentage might have been a shade under Ryan’s, but the number that’s important to focus on is average yardage per completion. The elite quarterbacks in this version of the NFL move the ball down the field in chunks (Ryan’s AYPC has risen in each of his five years, in 2012 he finished the regular season with a 7.67 average).
Atlanta was exactly .500 on the road last season, with their best win away from home coming in week 7 against the Detroit Lions (remember when they were a resurgent organization? Yeah me neither.) Three of their road losses last season were against divisional opponents. That’s why we shouldn’t have been surprised when Eli had a Eli in January type game (23-32/277/3-0/129.3) and Hakeem Nicks added the dirty bird to the; is Matt Ryan an elite quarterback stew.
Three years ago the Falcons were a fun team to root for because not only did they have the new kid on the block quarterback, team owner Arthur Blank also had the respect of everyone that follows football for burning the pages of the Michael Vick era and somehow figuring out how to put together a winning product in almost record time. That’s where GM Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith, and Matt Ryan come in. Without those three individuals, especially Ryan, the Falcons would have bee sending in their first round picks early on in the past couple drafts. Instead Blank saw immediate success with his investment in the three guys that would change the organization, but not evolve it.
In 2008 the Falcons rode an unusually poised rookie to the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season. It was all gravy in that bonus game against an Arizona Cardinals team who would go onto play in the best Super Bowl game ever. Isn’t it odd though that least polished version of Matt Ryan played the best playoff game of his career? His passer rating in that game was 72.2 and it’s the only playoff game in which he’s thrown for multiple touchdowns. That my friends is what you call pressure affecting the six to eight inches between your ears. It reminds me of when Phil Mickelson was the best golfer to never win a major. Every shot he hit when he was in contention on Sunday afternoons were dissected until the ’04 Masters when he finally slipped on the green jacket in dramatic fashion.
Golf rant aside, the perception of Atlanta was overblown to a point of no return in the 2010 season, so much so that it left us underrating Aaron Rodgers and his ability to lead his team on the road in a playoff situation. Looking back, no one could have beaten the Packers in 2010, they were the hot buzzsaw team that carves up people faster than Leatherface. The 2011 Giants were no different and the 2012 Seattle Seahawks might not be any different.
Since their dramatic 23-17 overtime win over the Bears in week 13, the ‘Hawks have been (I apologize for the reuse of this) a BUZZSAW. In their last six games Seattle has scored a combined 217 points. To put that in perspective the Chiefs scored 211 points in 16 games this season. For Seattle it’s been nothing short of a team effort.
Marshawn Lynch’s lowest rushing total in those last six games: 87 against the Bears; he’s rushed for at least a hundo in the last five games. An offense can’t just be a one man show unless your nickname is All-Day. The guy lining up in front of and sometimes to the side of Lynch is doing pretty well himself. Russell Wilson’s passing stats in those six games: 89-139(64%)/1,254/10-2/106.9, his rushing stats in those last six games: 45 att/329 yds/7.3 YPA/4 TDs. The 75th pick in the 2012 NFL draft has accounted for 14 touchdowns and only turned the ball over twice in the most crucial moments of the season. Welcome to the new age NFL holmes’.
Containing Russell Wilson and bottling up Marshawn Lynch is obviously a priority for Mike Nolan’s defensive unit. However stopping Lynch is going to be way easier said than actually being done by Atlanta, as they rank 21st in rushing yards given up per game (123.2) and 24th in rushing touchdowns (16). Surprisingly Nolan’s defense ranked 1st in passing touchdowns allowed this season, but ranked 23rd in passing yards.
The defensive effort is only going to take the Falcons so far on Sunday afternoon, once again it’s up to Matt Ryan to quite the critics and prove that the team that he’s led to the playoffs in four out of his first five seasons isn’t just a regular season fluke. The Mattural, Roddy White, and Julio Jones will have to pin the Legion Of Boom if Blank is going to host the NFC Championship game in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons’ owner might want to hold onto those reservations after reading this: In the six game winning streak for Seattle, Gus Bradley’s group has allowed an average of 173.5 yards per game and has a 6-9 TD-INT ratio. AND that was without the 6’4” Brandon Browner lining up at cornerback for four games. The only negative for Seattle’s defense is that they will be without the emerging DE Chris Clemons who tore his ACL on the “turf” of FedEx Field last Sunday.
There is only one difference in the script for this years’ Falcons. Their opposing quarterback isn’t someone with prior playoff experience, hell he didn’t have any NFL experience four months ago, but he’s proven every doubter wrong this season and has led a team that eerily resembles the past two teams that have chopped the beaks off of the Falcons before they were able to feed their fans a victory.
The time for what ifs, what could have been, and we should have done these things better are up for Mike Smith and Matt Ryan. If Arthur Blank’s team doesn’t rise up to the occasion and become the dominant bird Sunday afternoon someone’s talon very well be cut off in the coming weeks, because the perception of his team will be that it isn’t built to rise up when the level of adversity rises. By 4:15 on Sunday we’ll know if Matt Ryan’s press conferences will be filled with elite quarterback questions (aka minimal journalistic effort questions) or with questions of “How does it feel to get the monkey off of your back?”
The only way to receive those questions is to do the same thing it took to make the Georgia Dome the most raucous place in Atlanta for the past couple of seasons.
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