The Falcons say this season won’t end like the one in 2008 . . . or 2010 . . . or 2011.
That’s three playoff busts in three tries for the Falcons with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s a lot of baggage for the Falcons to carry when they open the playoffs on Jan. 12 or 13 as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Rather than pretend the weight isn’t there, the Falcons say they are ready to carry it.
“This is a very different team from last year, two years ago, three years ago,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “Our players are much more mature. I think we are ready to go. We feel like we’ve got a lot to prove in the playoffs because we haven’t won a game and we want to win one so bad.
“I don’t think anybody is pressing. We just want to go win.”
The Falcons (13-2) have done all they can to set themselves up with the easiest possible path to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
They secured the top seed with 31-18 victory at Detroit late Saturday. Atlanta earned a first-round bye, home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and will play the lowest-seeded wild card team to advance to the divisional round. The result of Sunday’s regular-season finale against Tampa Bay at the Georgia Dome won’t affect any of that.
It’s only the third time in franchise history the Falcons earned the No. 1 playoff seed. They don’t need to be reminded of what happened last time they finished with the NFC’s best record.
The 48-21 loss to the Packers in the 2010 playoffs was deflating for the Falcons because they were the top seed playing at home. They lost 30-24 at Arizona in the 2008 wild-card round and 24-2 at the Giants in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
The Falcons are 7-0 at the Georgia Dome this season but, like everything else with this team, it won’t mean much if they can’t keep it up in the playoffs.
“I like our chances way better at home with the dome rocking and how comfortable we are at home and how we’ve played (there),” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “But we still have to go out there and play. (The top seed) doesn’t mean we’ve arrived; it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Gonzalez is among the key skill players remaining from the 2010 team along with Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White and running back Michael Turner. Key additions since then include wide receiver Julio Jones, cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
Atlanta’s depth chart may look much the same but quarterback Matt Ryan said the intangibles are different.
“I think our chemistry is as good as I’ve ever been around,” Ryan said. “We’ve got guys in that locker room, both players and coaches, that are committed to doing everything the right way. And we have fun doing it. When you have a combination of guys who enjoy what they do and put in the time and put in the work, it’s enjoyable to be around.”
At the very least, Smith knows what not to do during the team’s bye week this time after the Falcons fell flat against the Packers.
Smith said the lessons learned from that experience prompted him to come up with a different practice plan if the Falcons earned the bye again.
“We’ll handle it differently in terms our workload and the days that we are going to work during our bye week and what our schedule will be,” he said. “We are not going to do anything like we did last time.”
During the bye week Smith and his staff will have to scout three of the four wild-card teams since they could end up facing any of them except the No. 3 seed in the divisional round.
Atlanta’s opponent will have to contend with an offense that’s clicking, especially in the passing game, and a defense with a knack for creating turnovers at key times. The Falcons recovered from a lackluster effort in a loss at Carolina and turned in strong efforts to beat the Giants and Lions.
The Falcons say their roll will continue in the playoffs this time.
“We are right where we wanted to be,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “When we started talking about it in training camp, we wanted to be a good team by the end of the year and control our own destiny. So far things are working out. We have to just go out and finish the deal.”
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