The road to the Super Bowl is coming through Atlanta for just the third time in Falcons' history. Tries in 1981 and 2010 did not end well for the Falcons, who lost their first home playoff games to the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, respectively.
In more recent memory is the result from just two years ago. Atlanta finished the regular season 13-3 and owned the No. 1 seed heading into the postseason. Then entered Green Bay, who had finished 10-6. Pundits saw Matt Ryan's first playoff loss, a 30-24 loss to Arizona in Glendale in 2008, as excusable because it was his rookie year.
Atlanta's first playoff game against the Packers was supposed to be where Ryan took the next step in his career. Instead, the Falcons not only lost but were blown out of the building 48-21 at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's unstoppable passing attack.
Since that loss, Atlanta has been labeled as nothing more than a very good regular-season team. That mantra was given more base last year when the Falcons dropped their Wild Card game to the Giants, 24-2.
All three of those opponents were inferior on paper but got hot at the right time. All three of them made the Super Bowl.
So, the past begs the question: Is Atlanta hot? The answer won't be nice if it knows anything of the Falcons' 22-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past Sunday, which snapped a five-game losing streak for the division rival.
Atlanta might have an excuse in the fact the game plans by both coordinators were very vanilla, and the starters ended up playing an entire game when they likely thought they wouldn't. Had the Falcons gotten on top early, the starters probably would have been pulled. That was the plan.
The Falcons also got good news for the postseason when it was told that John Abraham and Dunta Robinson—both hurt in the season finale—will be ready to play in the playoff opener on Jan. 13. Head coach Mike Smith dodged heavy criticism with that news.
Atlanta appears ready, but what will its easiest path to the Super Bowl be?
Strangely enough, they might want to pray for a game against Green Bay.
The truth is, the Falcons have had few weaknesses this year, but a lackluster run defense has been the culprit whenever the word has been spewed from an expert's tongue.
The Falcons give up 123.2 rushing yards per game and have shown an inability to stop premiere tailbacks as of late. See Doug Martin's performance in Week 17.
In Atlanta's three losses (which, it should be noted all came against the NFC South, where the Falcons went just 3-3 this year) they gave up 148, 195 and and 144 yards.
Atlanta isn't a team that is going to control the clock, averaging a horrid 87.3 rushing yards a contest. The Falcons' strengths are a lethal offense and a ball-hawking defense that can make the most elite of quarterbacks look miserable.
The proof is in the pudding. Atlanta intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter in Week 2 en route to a 20-0 lead that helped bury the Broncos—arguably the best team in the NFL thanks to Manning, a top MVP candidate.
The Falcons intercepted Drew Brees five times in a 23-13 win on Nov. 29. Even with a bad offensive performance, the Falcons pass defense single-handedly controlled the score.
And, who can forget how the Falcons fared against the other Manning? Eli entered the Georgia Dome in a statement game and fell flat-footed, finishing with two interceptions and a 40.7 quarterback rating.
That's three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks that bit the dust against the likes of Asante Samuel, Thomas DeCoud, a healthy William Moore and Dunta Robinson. The Falcons are the third-best intercepting team in the league.
That was not the secondary that enabled Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and co. in that 48-21 beatdown just two seasons ago.
While the Packers may feel like the most Super Bowl ready team in the NFC (they've been there and done that), Atlanta should want to play them.
But the fact is that the Falcons will not play Green Bay unless it's in the NFC Championship game.
First, the Falcons will have to deal with the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks or Washington Redskins. Those three teams feature Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris.
In case you were wondering, those three running backs are the top rushers in the entire NFL. They've even contributed to reviving the run offense in a decade where 50 passes from a quarterback per game is becoming the norm.
If Minnesota beats the Green Bay Packers in the opening Wild Card game, the Falcons would host the Vikings in the divisional round because the Vikings are the No. 6 seed.
If Green Bay does hold off Peterson and the Vikings, Atlanta will see either Washington or Seattle (the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, respectively).
Either way, the Falcons will have to man-up against the run in their first playoff game.
Say Green Bay does beat Minnesota; if Atlanta beats the Seahawks or Redskins, it will host either Green Bay or San Francisco in the NFC title game.
If Green Bay loses the Wild Card game, and Atlanta prevails against Minnesota, it will host either the Seahawks, Redskins or 49ers.
San Francisco has a pretty tough running game to stop as well. Frank Gore could be the scariest of all of the tailbacks Atlanta would face.
Seattle, Washington and San Francisco all boast running quarterbacks as well. Atlanta has struggled against running quarterbacks this year. They did prevail against the Redskins, 24-17, but that was after an injury to Robert Griffin III.
Atlanta also had its worst game of the year against Cam Newton, who helped control what seemed like an entire half with his ability to avoid the rush and make extracurricular plays.
It's funny, the fact that the Green Bay Packers come out of this formula as the team Atlanta will probably have the least amount of trouble dealing with.
Extending the comedy is the fact Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Christian Ponder (three rookies and a second-year starter) could be leading the team's with the most intimidating firepower.
But, that's the reality. The run game has evolved as a system in the NFL this year, and it happens to be a new monster that the Falcons' less-than-stellar run defense will have to try to take down.
Even as a 13-3 team, the Falcons could be in a heap of trouble. Welcome to the world of being an Atlanta sports fan.
Who knows? If the Falcons can find a solution to their problems against the run, with an extra week, they should be in really good shape. If an elite quarterback can't function against the Falcons secondary, how will a rookie fare?
But, anyone who thinks these Cinderella Wild Card teams with inexperienced quarterbacks and mediocre records are pushovers needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
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