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Atlanta Falcons understand skepticism entering NFL playoffs

Quarterback Matt Ryan tries to elude Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora during last season’s NFC wild-card game, the most recent of the Falcons’ playoff failures under coach Mike Smith.

Getty Images (2012)

Quarterback Matt Ryan tries to elude Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora during last season’s NFC wild-card game, the most recent of the Falcons’ playoff failures under coach Mike Smith.

The Falcons are well-aware of your suspicions.

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They know you're underwhelmed by their 0-3 postseason record under fifth-year coach Mike Smith. They know you're rather unimpressed by a .700 regular-season winning percentage (56-24) under Smith that has resulted in nothing in the postseason. They even know you might not think much of their prospects for winning in this season's playoffs.

And you know what? The Falcons mostly agree with you.

"That's human nature," said 16-year tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has been with Atlanta for two of the playoff losses. "(For) reporters, media, the public, that's what matters: winning in the postseason. I get it. Part of me says, 'Yeah, you're right.'

"We have to go out there and make sure we don't let what happened before happen again."

As the Falcons enter Sunday's NFC division-round game against the Seahawks, they face questions about their ability to finally break through in the playoffs. Rarely has a 13-3 regular-season record and No. 1 seed meant so little in the eyes of the masses; mostly because Atlanta has done so little to inspire belief.

But players and coaches insist this season is different. It sure doesn't look different; not with the same key players in place. Even their outstanding record is familiar: They finished 13-3 and were the No. 1 seed in 2010 before losing at home to the Packers in their first playoff game.

But something important has changed, players say: attitude.

Whether as a result of pressure or impatience, winning in the regular season was not seen as the standard in the Falcons locker room. The entire season has been focused on a single goal: winning the Super Bowl.

"This is what you work for," quarterback Matt Ryan told Atlanta reporters this week. "You put in all the time that you put in during the offseason, during training camp, during (offseason workouts), during minicamp to try and give yourself an opportunity to be playing at this time of year."

But playing at this time of year is not the same as winning at this time of year. And given the 102-47 combined deficit in the Falcons' three playoff disappointments under Smith, what's to say this year's outcome will change?

Actually, those losses might play a role in a potential playoff run. The core players who will be counted on Sunday suffered through those defeats and have grown into hungry, experienced veterans.

"We're just a better team," Gonzalez said. "It's pretty much the same offense that's been around here for a while, except I think guys are really coming into their own as football players. A guy like Matt Ryan, for instance, is playing the best football that I've ever seen him play.

"(Receiver) Julio Jones, in his second year, he's become a better football player. If you look at defense, guys are hitting Year 3, 4 and 5, which is when you really start to become the football player you're capable of being. Guys like (safety) Thomas DeCoud, (safety) William Moore, (linebacker Sean) Weatherspoon in the middle. All these guys are starting to peak as players, and it's making our football team better."

Ryan posted career highs in passing yards and completion percentage. And the defense's 18.7 points allowed per game are 3.2 fewer than last season. But again, all that relates to the regular season, which doesn't mean much when you're talking about the Falcons.

"We've had success, but our success measurement isn't the same," Gonzalez said. "It doesn't mean having a great regular season. It doesn't mean getting to the playoffs. It means going to the playoffs and having some success and going through the playoffs, getting to the big game. We have to go out there and make it happen, and then people will change their minds.

"We have to go out there and win."

>>Fast facts

0-for-the-playoffs

The Falcons' playoff appearances under coach Mike Smith, including regular-season record and seed:

Year Rec. No.Result

2011 10-6 5at NYG, 24-2 L

2010 13-3 1vs. GB, 48-21 L

2008 11-5 5at Ari., 30-24 L

Atlanta Falcons understand skepticism entering NFL playoffs 01/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 8:07pm]

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