There's a good reason for the pleasant (if not jovial) vibes emitting profusely from the Atlanta Falcons' fanbase, whose reputation for being overly cynical precedes them.
Up to this point, the 2012 regular season could not have played out any better in the most enthusiastic Falcons fan's wildest dream. A mere 14 points away from perfection, Atlanta is 13-2 heading into Week 17 of a campaign that saw them exact a measure of revenge against the Giants, effectively end the Saints' playoff hopes on national television en route to posting a 4-0 record in prime time, and finally win a game in Philadelphia (the first time since 1988). Moreover, you would think that Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan were celebrities if listened to Falcons fans talk about them, and Matt Ryan has posted career highs in passing yards, completions, touchdowns, and completion percentage. Even the national media is finally inching towards recognizing the team's legitimacy.
That is why I get the feeling I may be treated like one of those people who didn't "Know the Code" in Las Vegas the next time I show my face around Atlanta fans after I ask the following question: What Happens if the Falcons lose in the NFC Divisional Playoff Round?
I am not asking this in order to beat this team up for its past playoff failures. Falcons' critics have already beaten the "they haven't won in the playoffs" horse so far beyond death that it was probably packaged in the bottle of glue you used to put your kid's Christmas present together.
Instead, I pose my simple question because, as good as these Falcons are, there's still a decent possibility they could end up home early in January once again. (I touched on the reasons why teams like Seattle, Washington, and Dallas are more than capable of beating the Falcons at the Georgia Dome last weekend.)
The reason the top-seeded Falcons may lose another playoff game in two weeks has less to do with the potential matchups than it does with the NFL's single-elimination playoff format. Unlike the playoffs in the NBA, NHL or MLB, the better team doesn't always advance in the NFL Playoffs. The same parity we love during the NFL's regular season is present in the postseason. Yes, these Falcons earned the best record in the NFC after sixteen games, but now they are one slip up away from another long offseason.
As great as they have been, we've seen these 2012 Falcons struggle against inferior opponents before, particularly at home, where Atlanta struggled mightily against Arizona, Oakland and Carolina. What happens if the offense turns stale after the two-week hiatus and Asante Samuel isn't able to jump a route and save the day like he did against the Raiders?
Don't assume this team's desire to end their playoff losing streak is enough to carry Atlanta over the hump in January. The Falcons aren't going to catch any breaks from anyone this postseason just because they've suffered through playoff heartbreak the last two seasons (the 2008 loss wasn't a heartbreaker because no one expected Ryan to be in the playoffs as a rookie).
In the early part of the last decade, plenty of Philadelphia fans thought the third-straight NFC Championship trip would be a charm for their top-seeded Eagles (the second straight year as a No. 1 seed) before Philly inexplicably lost 14-3 at home to Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers.
Being a diehard football fan can be very cruel, sometimes.
The 2003 Eagles responded to their third consecutive playoff heartbreak by bringing in Terrell Owens, Jevon Kearse and Jeremiah Trotter while also replacing longtime Eagle veterans/fan favorites Duce Staley, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor with Brian Westbrook, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. So is it possible that another Falcons playoff disappointment would mean the end for veterans Michael Turner, John Abraham, Todd McClure and Jonathan Babineaux?
Would Thomas Dimitroff react with another bold draft-day trade? Would Mike Smith go into 2013 on the hot seat?
I believe this team will win a playoff game in two weeks, but I'm opening this discussion because of my cognizance of the unpredictable nature of the NFL and the parity that exist in the league rather than any worry over past playoff heartbreak. That being said, if the Falcons do end up losing in two weeks, you can thank me for having prepared your heart and mind for the possibility.