We can stop asking when the Atlanta Falcons are going to win a playoff game in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. They crossed that off their list last season with a nail-biting win over Seattle in the NFC Divisional round.
But the playoffs were helter-skelter for the Falcons.
One week after blowing a 27-7 lead in the fourth quarter against Seattle, the Falcons blew a 17-0 lead (second quarter) to San Francisco in the NFC Championship. Atlanta was scoreless in the second half.
It was just the fourth blown lead in the fourth quarter for the Falcons since 2008, which is the fewest in the league. It was also the biggest blown lead by a home team in championship game history.
With both games going down to the wire, the Falcons were either one play away from the Super Bowl, or one play away from another one-and-done postseason depending on how you want to look at it.
The Falcons had the league’s best regular season record at 13-3, much like the Denver Broncos did in the AFC. Also like the Broncos, there is virtually nothing the Falcons can do in the 2013 regular season to better themselves for a title run.
Ranking in the top seven in scoring offense, scoring defense and turnover differential?
That didn’t matter against the 49ers, who outscored Atlanta 28-7 after falling behind early.
Home-field advantage via the No. 1 seed?
We have seen the Falcons lose at home twice now in this situation; getting blown out 48-21 by Green Bay in the 2010 season.
Besides, only one regular season champion (2003 Patriots) in the last 16 seasons has actually won the Super Bowl. Also, no team has repeated as the regular season champion since the 49ers did in 1989-90.
For Atlanta to break through and reach the Super Bowl, it simply comes down to making the plays in crunch time in January. The talent is already there.
Falcons in the Clutch: Regression or Retribution in 2013?
Having a franchise quarterback always makes things easier on the team. Ryan limits turnovers, ranking second in NFL history with a career turnover rate of 2.81 percent. He helps the offensive line by getting rid of the ball quickly, ranking sixth in lowest sack percentage (4.11 percent).
Ryan also gives the Falcons an advantage in close games, which they have played a lot of over the years. Something as simple as quickly calling plays in a no-huddle offense gives the top quarterbacks in the league an advantage in such situations. Ryan is undoubtedly one of the league’s best at running an offense at the line of scrimmage.
Including the playoffs, half of Atlanta’s 14 wins in 2012 were capped off by a game-winning drive engineered by Ryan in the fourth quarter.
Some would like to say that’s more about luck than legitimacy, but it was just two years ago when Ryan led six game-winning drives in the 2010 season.
Ryan has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (16) and game-winning drives (23) in NFL history for a quarterback in his first five seasons. He rarely wastes such an opportunity, which is why he has the best documented record in NFL history (minimum 20 games) at game-winning drive opportunities in the fourth quarter/overtime:
A huge reason for why Atlanta has only surrendered four comeback wins since 2008 is because of Ryan’s ability to lead a late drive, even with very little time left.
What was so impressive last season is the way Ryan led three one-minute drills: drives to win the game that started in the final minute of regulation. Ryan did it against Carolina, Oakland and then Seattle in the playoffs.
Ryan’s five one-minute drills in his career are the most by any quarterback since 1981 (perhaps the most ever).
It’s not as if Atlanta tries to play so many close games. In fact, they have the league’s best average scoring differential in the first quarter (2.52 points per game) in the Ryan/Smith era (including playoffs):
We saw this on display in the playoffs when the Falcons went up 10-0 on both Seattle and San Francisco. But somehow, some way, the game still ends up close in the end. That’s just how the NFL is now, but the Falcons could stand to perform better with the lead to avoid playing so many of these situations.
Some will say the Falcons had no business needing late drives against teams like Oakland and Carolina. Atlanta had the easiest strength of schedule (.422) in the NFL last year.
Ryan may have played himself out of the MVP race by throwing three interceptions against Oakland and five against Arizona. Both games were at home and were decided by a late game-winning drive.
Though they were still wins, it did take some of the allure out of Ryan’s sterling 34-7 (.829) home record. It killed his home statistics, dropping him to an 86.2 passer rating at home vs. 111.3 on the road in 2012.
But maybe Ryan needs to continue playing better on the road anyway instead of relying on the cozy confines of the Georgia Dome. Some will say the Falcons need to stop relying on him for late-game heroics.
It’s true teams with at least six clutch wins nearly always regress in such games the following season. Their overall winning percentage drops from 68.3 percent to 58.1 percent. Their winning percentage in clutch games goes from 67.6 percent to 39.9 percent.
The 2011 teams with at least six clutch wins (playoffs included) were the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and 49ers. All four had an inferior overall record in 2012 except Denver, though we know why that is.
All had an inferior record at comebacks except Denver, who only played in four such games after nine with Tim Tebow in 2011. All four had an inferior record at overall game-winning drive opportunities. They were a combined 29-18 (.617) in 2011, but just 10-11-1 (.477) in 2012.
As for the Falcons, Ryan was coming off a 2010 season that saw him lead the team to a 6-2 record in game-winning drive opportunities. In 2011, Ryan was 3-4 in game-winning drive opportunities, which is not a bad record. He was 7-3 last season.
Although, all that’s going to matter in 2013 is getting enough wins in the regular season to make the playoffs, and then finishing any game-winning drives when the moment comes in the playoffs.
A close playoff game is practically unavoidable in today’s game. The teams are too competitive for it not to happen at least once on the way to a Super Bowl.
Last year in the NFC Championship, Harry Douglas could have maintained his balance and gone 50 yards for a touchdown on that critical play against the 49ers. Instead, he falls and barely makes the reception for a 22-yard gain.
Ryan is unable to complete the drive, even injuring his non-throwing shoulder before it ended. The no-call on San Francisco on fourth down looked a lot like the no-call that went against the 49ers two weeks later in the Super Bowl.
When you play it so close to the vest, one play could be the difference. With Ryan at the controls and a very good kicker in Matt Bryant, the Falcons usually come out on top in these games.
Baltimore was denied a Super Bowl appearance by New England’s Sterling Moore on Lee Evans two years ago in the AFC Championship, but helped out by Rahim Moore in Denver this year, eventually resulting in a title.
The Falcons will be hoping to get their break this year.
Departures and Arrivals
Naturally, the Falcons have experienced some turnover on the roster as they look to sustain their winning success.
Michael Turner, John Abraham, Dunta Robinson and Tyson Clabo are all gone while center Todd McClure retired. Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was expected to retire, too, but he has been coaxed to return for one more attempt at a ring.
They really needed Gonzalez, who still had 93 receptions and an All-Pro season at age 36 last year. His freakish longevity is unlike anything we have seen at the position, so he is expected to continue being a major contributor.
Losing two tenured starters on the offensive line sounds tough, but the Falcons had a plan with the second-round pick of Peter Konz in 2012. He could become the new center. Lamar Holmes was the third-round pick in 2012 and he could be the new right tackle.
The Atlanta offense started out focusing on the run with a young Ryan, but the team has transitioned away from Turner, who was clearly no longer a “burner” like his nickname once suggested.
Since acquiring Julio Jones in the big draft trade, Atlanta’s running game has declined, but that’s fine since the passing offense has improved.
With a lack of big plays since Ryan’s rookie year, he was able to get his yards per attempt up to 7.67 last season with Jones exploding for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second season.
Jones and Roddy White make the best wide receiver combination in the league, while Gonzalez still controls the middle and underneath routes.
It would be beneficial for this offense to develop a slot receiver or a better No. 3 than Harry Douglas, but they are going to continue putting the ball in the hands of these three Pro Bowl receivers.
Now they will look to Steven Jackson in the backfield. Honestly, it’s a marginal upgrade as Jackson turns 30 this summer and already has 2,395 carries on his body from St. Louis.
One advantage he provides over Turner is the ability to catch the ball, though Jacquizz Rodgers was already doing an adequate job of that.
Jackson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons on some terrible St. Louis teams, so he should be able to replicate Turner’s production.
But don’t think a 30-year-old running back is the missing piece.
Defensively, the Falcons had a strange year as they had the statistics reminiscent of a bend-but-don’t-break defense (22nd in yards per drive; 10th in points per drive). But they also had huge performances at home in making Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Eli Manning turn the ball over a combined 10 times.
If you can play like that against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the playoffs, then you are in great shape. But the Falcons were lit up in the second half by rookie Russell Wilson, who finished with 385 passing yards after not having a 300-yard passing game all season.
A week later, Colin Kaepernick had a 127.7 passer rating and led his first and only fourth-quarter comeback win.
The Falcons have signed veteran Osi Umenyiora as Abraham’s replacement. He has 15 sacks in the last two seasons (played 25 games). Like Turner to Jackson, it’s another marginal gain, if it’s a gain at all.
Umenyiora came from the pass-rushing factory that is the Giants. In Atlanta, Abraham was more of the one individual they had to get pressure, so expectations are considerable for Umenyiora this year to stay healthy and produce.
If you can’t get to the quarterback, then cover his receivers. The Falcons used the draft to get better at cornerback, taking Washington’s Desmond Trufant in the first round (No. 22) and Robert Alford in the second round (No. 60).
Not sure a team with rookie corners has won a Super Bowl since the 1981 49ers did it with Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright, but Trufant should see plenty of action this year. These moves are more about the long term anyway.
In 2013, the Falcons are going to rely on their elite players to carry the team again. Umenyiora is the one to keep an eye on as the new face that needs to play very well.
Super Bowl or Bust
Just like last year, fair or not, the Falcons will ultimately be judged by what they do in the postseason. The expectations should be for double-digit wins in what should be a better NFC South. The other three teams will not all go 7-9 again.
Maybe that means the Falcons are not going to earn a first-round bye, but again, that no longer matters for winning a Super Bowl. Six of the last eight champions had to play a Wild Card game. Five of them had to win multiple road playoff games just to get to the Super Bowl.
That path takes a toughened team, but the Falcons should have experienced enough playoff failure by now to assume that role. Maybe being the favorite is not the right role for a franchise still seeking its first Super Bowl win.
For Ryan, the comparisons to Peyton Manning are not slowing down. It was in his sixth season (2003) that Manning won his first MVP award, taking his game to a higher level. The Falcons are going to need Ryan, in a contract year, to play like a MVP to navigate the increasingly tough NFC.
What Ryan does is consistently lead the Falcons to a position where they can win the game. He did not keep it close enough in his first three playoff losses, but both games last year saw him with the ball in the final moments.
I like to say Super Bowl XLVII was the result of a five-year journey for the Baltimore Ravens in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era. They had so many close calls in the past, but this time they made the plays to finish the job.
Well, Ryan and Smith, also joining their team in 2008, are going into Year 6 together. Their journey has been somewhat similar to the one taken by Baltimore.
Last year the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, but if they can keep generating these situations, the next opportunity may be the one that helps them achieve their goals.
There’s no magic formula behind it. The Falcons are one of the few teams so close to the cusp of the Super Bowl. They just have to make the critical plays next time.
If they want to formulate a plan, have Ryan claim he’s an elite quarterback this month, then ask Gonzalez to announce his impending retirement after Week 17. That seems to work these days as motivation for a title run.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.