Just like two seasons back, the Falcons finished 13-3 in the regular season. Once again, they have the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
This time, they vow they’re mature enough to make the most of the opportunity.
The Falcons will try to end their recent trend of first-game postseason exits today when they play the streaking Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons had a first-round bye last week while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson led Seattle to a 24-14 comeback win at the Washington Redskins.
The Seahawks (12-5) bring a six-game winning streak to Atlanta.
Atlanta had never managed back-to-back winning seasons before a new era began in 2008 with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons have five straight winning records and four playoff seasons, including three straight.
So far, all the regular-season success has led only to postseason disappointment. Smith and Ryan are 0-3 in the postseason, including a home loss to Green Bay in 2010 and an ugly 24-2 loss at the Giants last year.
The Falcons say they’ve learned from the playoff defeats and are better prepared this year.
“We’ve been here in the past before and now we’re more mature,” said safety Thomas DeCoud. “We know what we can and cannot do.
“It’s a sense of pride, more of an internal sense of pressure rather than anything external. As professional athletes we all want to go out there and perform well and get this monkey off our backs, so to speak.”
The Falcons can only marvel at Wilson’s ability to pull off a road win in his first playoff game. Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards and ran for 67 yards in last week’s win. Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to beat the Redskins.
Wilson, a third-round pick, has outlasted Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the playoffs.
“My expectations are very high,” Wilson said. “That’s allowed me to be where I am today. If I listen to everybody who said I can’t do it, there’s no way I could play in the National Football League, there’s no way I’d be starting in the National Football League. There’s no way I’d be here today.”
Center Todd McClure, in his 13th season, is the only holdover from the last Atlanta team to win a playoff game, in 2004.
“I feel like this is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” McClure said. “I’m not just saying that. I feel like this is the best opportunity I’ve had and we’ve had to make a run. We have to go out (today) and execute. We have to play our best football to win this game and I think we’re ready for it.”
The 35-year-old McClure says he thinks he’ll return for another season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is 36, says he’s 95 percent certain he will retire even though he made his 13th Pro Bowl. Among other key veterans on the team are cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Michael Turner.
Looking back at 2010 and 2011, McClure says the Falcons are fortunate to have this opportunity to make up for past postseason failures. He says there is no assurance there will be another chance.
“These opportunities in the playoffs, they don’t happen every year,” McClure said. “Some teams seem like they’re in just about every year but you look over guys’ careers and it’s hard to get in the playoffs. Even if I do play another year it’s not a certainty I’ll be back in this situation. It’s like that for everybody in this locker room. We want to take advantage of where we’re at.”
The Falcons’ offense has evolved in the five seasons under Smith, whose early teams featured Turner’s runs. First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made this a pass-first offense with more screens and more big plays for Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Ryan set franchise marks with 4,719 yards passing and 32 touchdowns while completing 68.6 percent of his passes for another record.
With Ryan orchestrating the no-huddle attack, the Falcons have the ability for quick-strike big plays. It’s a contrast to the Seahawks, who prefer to control the ball with powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, who set a career high and ranked third in NFL with 1,590 yards rushing.
“If we can hold the football, it’s frustrating to an offense who wants to go fast,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “We’re not trying to sit on the clock at all, but we’re certainly committed to the running game. There is nothing better that we can do than to be making first downs and handling the football to keep them from being on the field. The best thing we could do is to keep them on the sideline, and the best way we can do that is to convert, and running gives us a great chance.”
The Seahawks, only 3-5 on the road in the regular season, must make their second cross-country trip in as many weeks. According to STATS LLC, the only NFL West Coast team to win two games at East Coast sites in the same postseason was the 1989 Los Angeles Rams, who won at Philadelphia and the New York Giants.
Seattle lost sacks leader Chris Clemons to a knee injury last week. Rookie Bruce Irvin will start for Clemons, who had 11 1-2 sacks, at defensive end.
Losing Clemons is big for a defense that allowed only 203 yards — 99 passing and 104 rushing — against the Redskins.
“I think it’s a matter of who can execute their system better than the other team at a higher level,” said Seattle tight end Zach Miller. “It’s going to come down to who is more on their game. We’re similar type teams in that we don’t turn the ball over. We don’t make many mistakes.”
Wilson said the playoffs are “time to do something special.”
“Obviously we’ve got a tough seed in front of us,” Wilson said. “We’re going to Atlanta. It’s going to be a hostile crowd. ... We just need to enjoy what it is and see what happens.”