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Falcons eager to end playoff drought

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) makes a catch in the end zone for a touchdown as New York Giants defensive back Will Hill (31) and strong safety Stevie Brown (27) defend during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Rich Addicks)

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) makes a catch in the end zone for a touchdown as New York Giants defensive back Will Hill (31) and strong safety Stevie Brown (27) defend during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Rich Addicks)

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Atlanta Falcons know what it takes to win in the regular season.

When it comes to the playoffs, that's another story.

Perhaps no team faced a greater burden going into this postseason than the Falcons (13-3), the NFC's top-seeded squad for the second time in three years. They've yet to win a playoff game under the current trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- one-and-done in all three appearances going back to the 2008 season, the last two not even close.

Not surprisingly, the players keep insisting the previous years don't matter; they're only looking forward to Sunday's divisional game with the streaking Seattle Seahawks (12-5).

But the senior member of the team, center Todd McClure, concedes there will probably be some additional pressure when the Falcons take the field at the Georgia Dome.

That makes a quick start crucial to Atlanta's hopes.

"We've been disappointed a few times," said McClure, who's been with the Falcons for 13 years. "I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump."

The Falcons have gone 56-24 in the regular season since Dimitroff and Smith took over in 2008 and drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick -- more wins than any team during that span except New England (60-20). But the significance of five straight winning seasons, two division titles and, now, a fourth trip to the playoffs has been undermined by the lack of success in January.

It wasn't that big a deal when Atlanta, after surprisingly making the playoffs as a wild card one year after the Michael Vick debacle, lost to Arizona in the desert 30-24.

But the loss two years ago was a stunner, the No. 1-seeded Falcons -- who, like this team, went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye -- getting blown out at home in the divisional round by sixth-seeded Green Bay 48-21.

Then came last year, when Atlanta went 10-6 but was viewed as an underachieving squad, a perception that proved factual in the playoffs when the Falcons' high-powered but inconsistent offense was completely shut down by the New York Giants, who romped to a 24-2 victory on their way to capturing the Super Bowl title.

Carrying around all that baggage, the Falcons can't help but be a little skittish about facing a team that might be hotter than anyone in the league. The Seahawks have won six straight games, including last week's 24-14 victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in the opening round of the playoffs.

"We can't get too tight," McClure said Wednesday. "There's going to be some added pressure, I'm sure. I'm not going to say there's not. But if we come out, start fast of both sides of ball, some of that will die down. Then we can just go out and play football."

Seattle coach Pete Carroll shrugged off the notion that his team has some sort of psychological edge on the Falcons.

"This has nothing to do with years past or story lines," he said. "We're playing a terrific team, with a terrific coach and a terrific quarterback, and we're on the road. It's a monstrous task."

Much of the burden for turning things around in Atlanta falls on Ryan, who set numerous franchise passing records and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time.

That said, his career numbers in the regular season are much better than his postseason stats. He's yet to throw for 200 yards in a playoff game. He's tossed more interceptions (four) than touchdowns passes (three), including a crucial pick that was returned for a touchdown right before halftime in that loss to the Packers. His passer rating is about 20 points lower in the postseason.

Ryan certainly tries to learn from his mistakes, but he won't spend much time talking about what happened before this season.

"I don't worry about it, I don't think about it," he said. "My focus is for this locker room and for these guys and this coaching staff, making sure we're all together. We worked really hard during the course of the offseason and through training camp to give ourselves an opportunity to be playing at this time of year. We want to play our best football. That's really the only thing I'm worried about."

Ryan certainly has plenty of the offensive weapons, with a pair of Pro Bowlers (receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez) plus another receiver who probably should've made it (Roddy White). While the running game has tailed off dramatically, the Falcons are much more capable of hitting big plays and putting up points in a hurry, a testament to the scheme installed by first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter.

"I'm confident in the guys around me," said Ryan, who has completed nearly 69 percent of his throws for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. "We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me."

Protecting Ryan has been in an issue in the last three playoff losses, so the onus will be on an often-maligned line to keep the Seahawks out of the backfield -- no easy task facing a defense that is willing to stack the line and leave its cornerbacks in single coverage.

But the biggest task for Smith and his coaching staff might be getting the players to have a convenient case of amnesia. He doesn't want them lingering over those last three trips to the playoffs.

"We're a much more mature team because of our experiences," Smith said. "We feel very good about we've accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we've been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way we've played through the first season."

Now comes the second season. The one that really matters.

Notes: DE John Abraham (left ankle) and S William Moore (hamstring) were limited in practice Wednesday, but Smith said he expects both to play on Sunday. Moore hasn't played since a Nov. 29 victory over New Orleans. ... The only players to miss practice were a pair of backup defensive backs, rookie S Charles Mitchell (calf) and CB Christopher Owens (hamstring).

Comments

kevin 1 year, 10 months ago

https://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/299683_392590817494404_1402600358_n.jpg

I guess the NFL commissioner is really scared to travel in New Orleans after his failed and false bounty scandal to take the Saints out of the competition. Good news for the Falcons, it was! His greed & power made Goodell eat his words and to reverse his sanctions on all the players. The head coach just took it instead of trying to ruin his reputation around the league. Wait till next year when the Saints are back in the thick of it all, that is if Goodell gives there their #2 pick back. Never before was such sanctions put ob a team without proof. Look at the 1999 Packers, who did get caught in a bounty scandel and only paid a fine and that was it. What about all the drugs players take? I guess Goodell looks the other way when players dope themselves.

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kevin 1 year, 10 months ago

http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=8824741

The GDP needs to write an updated story about this scandal that never was proven with the facts. Listen to this. Goodell has been fixing games for years. It's about power & greed to the team that support what he wants to do.

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kevin 1 year, 10 months ago

from NFL Roundtable 2012, quote:

"Don't feel too bad for the commissioner. Early this morning, less than 12 hours after two rogue teams embarrassed Goodell by playing for the NFC East, a federal judge in Minnesota issued a ruling. The NFLPA's collusion lawsuit against the league was tossed out, with usually pro-player judge David Doty agreeing that the union had forfeited its right to sue under the collective bargaining agreement. The Redskins may have made the playoffs, but Roger Goodell still won the Collusion Bowl.

That was the season in "competitive balance," the catch-all invoked anytime the commissioner wants to make an executive decision. But this year, even that has taken a backseat to "player safety," an oxymoronic concept that threatens to be the NFL's single biggest source of bad PR. So it was very poor timing for the New Orleans Saints when a disgruntled former employee approached the league with a story: The defense had run an organized bounty ring, in which opposing players were specifically targeted and the Saint making the injurious blow would get paid if the player was carted off.

Nearly everything in that last sentence turned out to be false or unsupported, but that didn't bother the commissioner. Suspensions, fines, docked draft picks all around. And when an appeals panel ruled that Goodell had overstepped his own authority in handing out suspensions, he simply nodded, smiled, and suspended them again.

That these suspensions were eventually thrown out ("the NFL's decision ... certainly raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment," wrote former commissioner Paul Tagliabue) didn't particularly matter. The damage had long been done. The Saints lost their coach for a full season, and their interim coach for six weeks. They lost their GM and some draft picks and followed up a 13-3 season by going 7-9. The Rams lost their defensive coordinator. Anthony Hargrove spent the year as a free agent, with teams scared off by the lengthy suspension hanging over his head.

There wasn't a team untouched by Goodell's heavy hand in 2012. The senseless referee lockout, the commissioner's ideological war, rendered three full weeks of the NFL season suspect, with real consequences. If a banker who flunked out of college ref camp hadn't signaled touchdown when there wasn't a touchdown, the Packers would be enjoying their playoff bye week right now. All year, Goodell sowed chaos in the name of protecting the league from chaos. It's a testament to the NFL's dominance that it's able to survive its own boss."

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