It’s year three of this great franchise awakening, and that means one thing: We don’t grade seasons on the first 16 games.
We can praise the Falcons for a 13-win season. We can marvel at their young quarterback, Matt Ryan, for his progress in three seasons and his ability to pull out victories in pressure situations. We can sit back and praise the owner, the general manager and the coaching staff for seemingly doing everything right and winning 33 regular season games since 2008.
But in January of 2011, the Falcons should not be graded on what happens in the first 16 games. They should be graded on postseasons.
They failed. Epically.
There’s no shame in losing to the Green Bay Packers. But getting bodyslammed 48-21 is a level of humiliation that no playoff team should ever experience, especially this one. Not after a 13-3 season. Not in its first playoff game. Not at home. Not after having a week off while the opponent was in a short week following a road playoff game.
You expected a high point for the franchise. Instead, the Falcons gave us a low — the most lopsided playoff loss in their history.
“We didn’t do anything like ourselves,” Roddy White said. “It felt like were a different football team.”
If the Falcons could have stepped outside themselves and astral-projected into other bodies, it would have been an improvement.
They committed four turnovers. They allowed the Packers 442 yards in offense, 366 coming from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdowns and completed 31 of 36 passes (and I honestly can’t remember the five incompletes).
If you think it can’t get worse, try this: Green Bay never punted. The totals: Five offensive touchdown, a defensive score, two field goals, a missed field goal and a fumble. It was like the return of Arena Football, except only one team was fully functional.
“Totally our fault,” said defensive end John Abraham, who like many Falcons defenders got close to Rodgers on occasion but seldom could get him to the turf (he was sacked twice). “I’m not saying they didn’t play well, but we could’ve done a lot more to move this in the right direction and we didn’t.
“Personally, I had bigger goals. The regular season is good. But being done in the first game hurts, especially the way we got knocked out.”
Some feared the New Orleans Saints coming back into the Georgia Dome and winning for the second time in a month. More feared Michael Vick coming back and winning again. Was this any better — a lopsided loss, with several thousand “Cheeseheads” chanting, “Go Pack Go”?
We thought the Falcons were past this. Granted, they won a lot of close games during the regular season. Great teams win close games. But when a team has such an epic faceplant in its first playoff game, you have to wonder how close it really is.
In 2008 — the first year of the Ryan-Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff era — the Falcons rose from two years of wreckage. They went 11-5. Then they lost at Arizona, a team that went on to the Super Bowl — no embarrassment there. This season they went 13-3 and lost to a Green Bay team that may end up in Dallas. The difference is venue — the Falcons were 20-4 in the Georgia Dome in the last three seasons – and what we perceived to be the Falcons’ evolution to this point.
Nobody thought the defense was great. But it appeared to be young and improving and certainly not set up for a dismembering. The offense added Tony Gonzalez last year to win a Super Bowl, but the team hasn’t even won a playoff game. (Nor has Gonzalez in his career. In fact he made his first catch of the game with 2:03 left in the third quarter and then limped off.)
The Packers fumbled on their opening possession. Then they scored touchdowns the next six times they touched the football – five on offensive possessions and one on a 70-yard interception return by cornerback Tramon Williams, a play that Ryan will be reliving in his nightmares for the next several months.
Oh yes, Ryan: The Falcons thrived this season on not turning over the ball. Ryan was at the forefront of that, throwing a career-low nine interceptions. Both second-quarter interceptions were costly. The first ended a scoring drive, though it may have been more the fault of wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who slipped and fell in the end zone, leaving Tramon Williams to make an easy interception.
But the second one was all on Ryan. With the Falcons trailing 21-14, eight seconds left in the half and the ball on the Packers’ 34, Ryan tried to hit Roddy White with a quick sideline pass to set up a field goal. But he threw way short and behind White and the pass was picked off by Williams, who brought it all the way for a score to make it 28-14 at halftime. The most audible sound in the Georgia Dome was a loud groan.
Brave fans stayed for the second half. But when the Packers scored on their first two possessions in the third quarter, it was like somebody yelled, “Fire.” By the end, it was only Cheeseheads in the stands.
This was exactly the kind of playoff meltdown Ryan wanted to avoid. He was 20 for 29 but had two interceptions and was sacked five times. Two years ago, his first pass attempt at Arizona was intercepted and led to a Cardinals’ scoring drive. Later in the game he had a fumble that Arizona’s Antrel Rolle returned 27 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons lost 30-24. We didn’t consider it a great tragedy.
This is different. Two years later, humiliating defeat should not be what this team is about.
They’re not as close as we thought they were.