First, let’s get past the flaws.
The Falcons are thin on the offensive line, sporadic in the secondary. Passes have been dropped. Tackles have been missed. Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards – sorry, no rebates.
But every NFL playoff team has flaws, even the best one. Ask the Green Bay Packers about their 32nd-ranked defense.
The playoffs open this week. This is a good time for the Falcons to remind themselves of the one absolute truth in football that’s never changed, regardless of any second-guessing of the offensive coordinator or the quarterback’s Tramon Williams’ blind –spot: A punch in the mouth is the great equalizer.
The Falcons have talent. But they are 0-2 in the playoffs under this regime and they’ve struggled against good teams this season. To succeed in this postseason, they’ll need to win on the road, in the cold and/or difficult surroundings — New York this week, potentially Green Bay and New Orleans thereafter. That will require a mental and physical toughness they’ve consistently lacked this season and certainly in playoff losses to Arizona in 2008 and Green Bay last season.
Coach Mike Smith acknowledged, “I understand we’ll be scrutinized in the playoffs. That’s a natural. But it shouldn’t take away from what we’ve accomplished so far.”
It doesn’t take away. But it does leave some with thoughts of an imaginary ceiling.
Smith realizes bragging rights associated with his 43-21 regular-season record, as great as it is, carries a limited freshness date. At some point, the Falcons need to win a playoff game, and that point might very well be now.
One common theme in the two playoff losses: turnovers. The Falcons committed seven. But it’s not that simple.
The former linebacker and noted philosopher, Dick Butkus, once said, “When I played pro football, I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately — unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something.”
Now, this shouldn’t be viewed as a rallying cry for the Falcons to take the New York Giants out at the knees Sunday (notwithstanding the comical ramblings of Justin Tuck, who already views the Falcons as cheaters and “dirtbags”). It’s more about what Atlanta hasn’t been for much of this season and in the postseason: a physically and mentally tough team.
That’s odd, given, as Smith said, “A team takes on the personality of its coach.”
He coached smart, tough, physical defenses in Jacksonville (as coordinator) and Baltimore (linemen and linebackers). His Jaguars beat Pittsburgh in the 2007 playoffs before losing to unbeaten New England. His Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. He knows what it takes to be successful in the postseason and has tried to instill that in the Falcons. To this point he’s 0-for-2.
“When you’re in the playoffs, you know it’s win or go home — there’s a finality to it,” Smith said. “Everything is heightened in terms of your preparation, mentally and physically. You can’t look past what’s going on on that play, at that moment. The teams I’ve been on that have won postseason games, they’ve had that focus. They were prepared for the ebbs and flows in a game.”
Smith wouldn’t divulge what he’ll tell his team the night before the game in New York. But I’m guessing he just touched on elements of it. The Falcons weren’t prepared last season before the Green Bay playoff game. Smith acknowledges now that he botched the bye week, giving players “too much down time.” He wanted them to be fresh, but by game day they had lost their edge.
The way Aaron Rodgers was playing, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. But neither would it have been 42-14 in the third quarter.
If the Falcons win Sunday in New York, it will be because they were the smarter, tougher team. That wasn’t the case earlier this season against Green Bay, and it also wasn’t the case in losses to Houston, New Orleans (twice) and Chicago.
The Falcons have flaws, but those flaws aren’t going to keep this team from going anywhere.
“We have talent,” Smith said. “We have to play at a higher level than we’ve played all season to win in the playoffs.”
It’s the next step this team needs to take.
By Jeff Schultz