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.
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.
“We’ve been disappointed a few times,” said McClure. “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 consecutive 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 were shut down by the New York Giants, who romped 24-2.
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 off-season 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.