Time’s up for Falcons: They need to win in postseason now

Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff understand they're being judged on playoffs now. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff know they're being judged on playoffs now. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

FLOWERY BRANCH – When Falcons coach Mike Smith was asked this week whether he could sense when a team was ready to take the next step, he gave a long, winding answer that never really arrived at “yes” or “no,” even if he spoke in well-crafted sentences.

It reminded me of middle school when I was faced with an essay question that I didn’t know the answer to, which led to something like, “The Taft-Hartley Act is considered one of the most important documents in history, written half by Taft and half by Hartley, both of whom were fine, distinguished gentlemen who liked to wear suits, and this had a big impact on the United States of America! You’re my favorite teacher! Oh, look at the birdies …”

This was Smith, on whether he knows when a team is ready to take the next step, or possibly the Taft-Hartley Act: “We feel very good about what we’ve accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we’ve been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way that we’ve played through the first season. The second season is getting ready to start, and I know that we respect everybody that’s in this tournament because they’ve fought very hard to get in it.”

I’ll answer for him: No.

I’ll also answer for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who, in trying to avoid anything close to state-of-the-Falcons questions this week, has decided to make himself unavailable to the media: No.

In the NFL playoffs, there’s a tendency to handicap teams not by records, statistics or talent, but by resume. New England and Green Bay are feared. They’ve won Super Bowls. The Falcons are not. They scored two points in the Meadowlands.

In their past three playoff seasons, the Falcons went 11-5, 13-3 and 10-6. They lost their first playoff game each year, in stunning, increasingly humiliating fashion: 30-24 (Arizona), 48-21 (Green Bay) and 24-2 (New York Giants). In all three years, they were confident. In all three years, they thought, “We can do this.” They didn’t.

So now we watch again. A talented, confident, 13-3 Falcons team, following the luxury of a week off that’s afforded a No. 1 seed, faces Seattle at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. There’s a public concern because the Seahawks are hot.

But really, that’s not what this is about. This game is not about what the Seahawks are, but rather what the Falcons have been.

This is a one-game pass-fail test. It’s important to Dimitroff, the architect of this otherwise wonderful, five-year franchise makeover, who made the decision to make few roster changes from last season’s team until the late trade for cornerback Asante Samuel (a familiar face from their New England days).

It’s important to quarterback Ryan, who could be excused for getting outplayed in the postseason by three Super Bowl quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning), but probably not so quickly if he loses to a rookie (Russell Wilson).

It’s important to Smith, who likely will catch more heat than anybody — yes, even more than Ryan — if the Falcons lose this game.

The people who claim Mike Smith absolutely gets fired if the Falcons lose this game are wrong. So are the people who say Mike Smith absolutely would not get fired. Fact is, we don’t know. That’s one man’s decision, and regardless of what that one man, owner Arthur Blank, might say now, even he can’t imagine the difficulty of processing another defeat and where that would lead him. We’re talking about one of the more emotionally invested owners in sports.

But there are several good signs for the Falcons (notwithstanding the season-ending stink bomb against Tampa Bay). They seemed hardened by the criticism. There was less celebrating this season after victories. There’s a swagger on defense — certainly in the secondary with Samuel, Dunta Robinson, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud — that wasn’t evident before.

This has been Ryan’s best season. His completion percentage (68.6), touchdown total (32) and rating (99.1) all were career bests.

But the Falcons’ biggest step forward this season probably came in game-planning and decision-making by the coordinators. Mike Nolan (defense) and Dirk Koetter (offense) have been superior to their predecessors (Brian VanGorder and Mike Mularkey), in terms of motivating players and putting them in positions to succeed.

Smith said, “We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences. I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs.”

We’ll soon find out. Because if they lose again, there’s a very good chance the changes would not be small.

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By Jeff Schultz

353 comments Add your comment

NotJoeCox

January 8th, 2013
1:16 pm

Falcons Rise UP

tmc

January 8th, 2013
1:22 pm

This is the year for post season success. Maybe even a SB (not saying it).
Home field advantage throughout, SB in New Orleans Superdome. (very familiar place)…and desperation, which is not a bad thing.
(FYI, next year’s superbowl is in freagin new york. And nobody believes the any warm weather team will win there)

The Time is NOW!

CSP

January 8th, 2013
1:26 pm

Go Falcons!!!!!

CSP

January 8th, 2013
1:27 pm

@TMC You meant friggin New Jersey!!!

tmc

January 8th, 2013
1:30 pm

@CSP LOL, good point.

Buckeye

January 8th, 2013
1:31 pm

As long as Matty Ice doesn’t play like Murray being Murray in big games Murray we should be ok.

Matty Ice won’t need to look for permission to spike the ball if the situation arises.

GO FALCONS

1990_Champs_GT

January 8th, 2013
1:32 pm

Jeff, you are right that no one can say what Blank will do if the Falcons lose on Sunday. But my guess is the only one safe in Flowery Branch is Blank if the Seahawks win…

Nervous Bird

January 8th, 2013
1:35 pm

Its hard for me to get a handle on this one.
I love the birds, but just hope they play like champions instead of playing scared.

1990_Champs_GT

January 8th, 2013
1:38 pm

Smitty is going to have to win this game for his job, I feel. Not the Super Bowl, just this first playoff game. The fans are expecting improvement, so is Blank. Doesn’t seem to me like Smith has a job if they lose.

Mr. Hankey (Pankey.)

January 8th, 2013
1:41 pm

Win and we still probably won’t get any Rodney Dangerfield “respect.” But allow a rookie/5ft 10inch/
one year of college led football teams having to travle transcontinent twice in literally 7 days come in here and beat the Falcons and they will RICHLY DESERVE any and all criticism that comes their way along with the 20 year national media setback which will undoubtedly ensue. And yeah, go ahead and try to build a billion stadium and impose PSL’s on us fans in the lose. LMFAO on that one. I’ll be there, I’ll be partying my tookus off and being as obnoxious (but legal) a fan as humanly possible, but I swear by all the gods in Valhalla if they lose I’m done. Caput. No mo. And as Eric Cartman says, “Screw you guys, I’m going home. “Nuf sed.

T&AM

January 8th, 2013
1:44 pm

@ Buckeye

Who is responsible for Tatoo monitoring duty this year?

grumps

January 8th, 2013
1:45 pm

Here’s Peyton Manning’s playoff record. How does it compare to Matt Ryan’s record?

Year Game Opponent Score
1 1999 17 TEN L 16-19
2 2000 17 MIA L 17-23
3 2002 17 NYJ L 0-41
4 2003 17 DEN W 41-10
5 2003 18 KAN W 38-31
6 2003 19 NWE L 14-24
7 2004 17 DEN W 49-24
8 2004 18 NWE L 3-20
9 2005 17 PIT L 18-21

extremus

January 8th, 2013
1:47 pm

The irony of the situation is, if the Falcons do lose and Smith is fired, who do you replace him with that’s going to improve this team’s postseason chances? I mean, Smith never has had a losing season with the Falcons, which is more than any previous coach can say. And any coach coming in would be under that same scrutiny, not so much about regular season success as how soon they could get that elusive playoff win.

I know that if Mike Smith became available he’d be snapped up by any of the teams with head coaching vacancies instantly. As frustrating as the lack of postseason success has been thus far, I really believe the Falcons and their fans would be better served by weathering the storm and keeping Smith on board regardless of the upcoming game’s outcome. Because for all the “has never won in the postseason” hoopla, it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”.

Troupdawg

January 8th, 2013
2:03 pm

If and that’s a big if, but if they lose, I think Smith may be safe but litle Tommy Dimitroff may not be. His draft busts and lack luster weak draft choices, his Ray Edwards, and Curtis Loftin personnel moves will be his undoing. Weak lines on bothe sides of the ball, no signs of a young strong running back in the picture, no middle linebacker to stop the run game, will be questions that Mr Blank will want answers too And little Tommy will have no answers to give.

MG3

January 8th, 2013
2:07 pm

I realize Seattle has been on a run and blown some teams out, but am I the only one who wasn’t all that impressed Sunday? Washington jumped on them early and if not for the injured RG3 I believe they’d have gone on to sustain drives and blow the Seahawks out.

MG3

January 8th, 2013
2:10 pm

And for the record, as embarrassing as another playoff loss would be I believe everyone should be safe. Have been a fan for over 30 years and to be sitting here complaining about whether or not we’ll win in the post season for the 3rd straight year is a far cry from where this organization ever was before. I’ll be pissed, and they can kiss my season ticket sales goodbye but I’ll still take this over the ups and downs of our past.

JSS

January 8th, 2013
2:11 pm

Jeff Schultz, the only way Smith ever gets shown the door is by laying a Jim Mora the elder egg in the playoffs. I don’t mean a 24-2, I mean 41-0 come to meeting revelation like the one that got Mora shown the door in Indy… That is highly unlikely, nevertheless if they come out and the Seahawks work them, I would’t want to be in the after-season assessment meeting…

Shirley Hemphill

January 8th, 2013
2:12 pm

If Mrs. Blank can be let go, no one is immune.

T&AM

January 8th, 2013
2:14 pm

Anyone that suggest the Franchises winningest coach and GM should be fired is as crazy as the Bears owner for firing their winningest coach. And he took them to the Superbowl. Better yet..Why not say NE should fire their coach and GM for losing to the Giants twice in the SB. I see them making some player personnel changes not foolish changes.

southern hope

January 8th, 2013
2:16 pm

shirley, I wish there was a LIKE button at the AJC…..LOL

T&AM

January 8th, 2013
2:17 pm

@MG3

Amen to your last post… totally agree…

JSS

January 8th, 2013
2:18 pm

I stand corrected 41-10 didn’t get him shown the door, that was Dungy’s first season…

Najeh Davenpoop

January 8th, 2013
2:19 pm

I think the Falcons win this weekend because Matt Ryan is better this year at throwing down the field than he has been in previous years. But if the Falcons lose, they would be foolish to fire Mike Smith. The Falcons have been winning in the regular season the last few years more because of execution than talent, and you can see that reflected in stats like fewest penalties committed where the Falcons are among the league leaders every year.

single white dove

January 8th, 2013
2:19 pm

THE OFFENSIVE LINE BETTER STEP IT UP!

Super Falcons

January 8th, 2013
2:28 pm

I don’t see the Falcons choking this Sunday. In fact, I’d put money on the Falcons winning the Super Bowl this year. The team has very talented players and coaches, and they have proven to be unstoppable when it matters.

IF the Falcons lose this Sunday, then I doubt Mike Smith or Thomas Dimitroff would lose their jobs. I think Matt Ryan might then become like Drew Bledsoe, transitional.

Tell it like it is.

January 8th, 2013
2:30 pm

I think if the game is lost,then it will be lost on the field,not by the Coach’es. players need to be accountable.You can lead a horse to water,but you can’t make him drink! mike smith and co need to have all the hoopla and stress taken out of this game,just play the game,and if they lose its not the end of the world! mr Blank would be foolish to let his Gm and coach go after the record they have put togather in the last 3 years,it won’t happen!

Dr. Warren

January 8th, 2013
2:39 pm

Blank is certainly not getting any younger, and he wants to win NOW, because you never know what can happen health-related after 70. But come on, who are they going to replace Smith with? It would certainly not be only his fault if they happen to lose again. Maybe Blank could have signed off on two more key free agents, maybe Dimitroff could have made some better draft choices, maybe Ryan could have been more vocal and less robot-like in his demeanor, maybe the D-Block gang could have been less focused on their Youtube show, maybe Turner could have come in having run far more hills in the off-season a la Jerry Rice at 30. You win that many games in 5 years as head coach, you should keep the damn job. Period.

Pandora

January 8th, 2013
2:40 pm

Come on. You know the answer is no. He knows his team will lose yet another playoff game. No suprises here.

Atlfalconsfan0125

January 8th, 2013
2:41 pm

Damn, Najeh. I though you disliked Ryan…

But I agree. There is no way this Falcons team (who has been lobbying for respect all year) lets a rookie come in and beat them at their house.

Russdawg

January 8th, 2013
2:42 pm

Rise Up and win then win again. Are we really gonna let a rookie QB come in here and embarrass us? Time to prove it on the field !

Pamela

January 8th, 2013
2:43 pm

The falcons are still sorry in the redzone. You all should be grateful that your team won 13 games this season. 9 of them were 3 points or less. Not good wins. They will lose this Sunday to the Seahawks. Just expect it because either way it goes it will happen.

Super Falcons

January 8th, 2013
2:45 pm

@Pamela, sorry, but your comment is like saying you are a loser and you just have to accept it because that’s what you are.

JSS

January 8th, 2013
2:48 pm

“Damn, Najeh. I though you disliked Ryan…”
Funny, perception is a killer…

falcfan

January 8th, 2013
2:50 pm

No way we lose on Sunday….Seattle is overhyped, and their rookie QB will get confused by Nolan’s D….all we have to do is stuff Lynch, and they will unravel.

I know this won’t be popular, but I also believe that we can run the ball on their D….we’ve had two weeks to add new wrinkles, and fresh legs. That will set up play action which will kill them ,esp. without their top pass rusher. People forget, in the midst of touting Seattles CBs as being big and physical, that Roddy and Julio are too, and have the advantage of knowing where the play is going.

Falcons win 31-3

what of it?

January 8th, 2013
2:51 pm

great article Jeff. I could not believe the radio this morning when an unnamed DJ claimed that a loss this weekend would take away nothing from the regular season. No one gave this team credit when they were undefeated and Vegas doesn’t think they are as good as the seahawks. If they lose this game to a rookie quarterback on the road, this problem is officially in the heads of the players and personnel, and that is a massive coaching problem.

JSS

January 8th, 2013
2:53 pm

People have disliked what Ryan was projected to be (the fans and those who follow the league), the lack of respect for what he truly was (a project, nowhere as polished or close to the finished product as advertised), and observers could see the flaws, not just in the man, but what was and was not being put around him…

Is it enough. You folks hope it is…

heathsnow

January 8th, 2013
2:58 pm

Sorry Falcons. Seattle’s going to come into your house and leave victorious just as they did in Washington. True, RGIII was injured and could utilize his mobility but luckily the Seattle offense only had to play the Redskin’s defense. Just like the Seattle offense only has to play the Falcon’s defense. Seattle’s defense should do just fine this Sunday.

heathsnow

January 8th, 2013
2:59 pm

UGA ECONOMICS MAJOR

January 8th, 2013
3:01 pm

FALCONS WIN IT ALL THIS YEAR!!!AND THIS CRIME INFESTED RACIALY DIVIDED CITY GOES CRAZY !!!AND DANCE THE PEACHTREE SHUFFLE ON PEACHTREE STREET!!!AS 3.2 MILLION SHOW UP FOR PARADE IN DOWNTOWN ATLANTA..CRIME STOPS,THE RACIAL DIVISION STOPS AS BLACKS AND WHITES DANCE ON COFFETTI DROWNED PEACHTREE STREET IN JOY!!!!!!

Coachurly

January 8th, 2013
3:08 pm

I believe the key matchup is Roddy, Julio, and Tony against Seattle’s massive dbs. Matty might need a 300-350 yard game and he’s capable. I just hope Tiptoe, I mean Michael Turner, decides to hit the freakin’ hole. I’ve been a Falcon fan since the Eighties with Super Bowl dreams. We must cleanse the memory of ‘98 and the Eugene Robinson debacle. RISE THE F*** UP!

NYC Fan

January 8th, 2013
3:10 pm

All of you guys are very close to be right. However, you must admit, that Smith makes poor decisions at the crutial moments, and THAT starts off the avalanche of issues. Consistency is one of them. For as long as he is the head coach, tha Falcons have NO chance to win SB. No prejudice – I like your team, I am getting used to this city and its culture, I love the weather, and life is good. But with all the respect to MS, he is NOT the caliber of SB winning coach. Yes, I have no idea who to replace him with.

NYC Fan

January 8th, 2013
3:11 pm

Your team is extremely talented, you can’t blame Dimitroff for anything.

single white dove

January 8th, 2013
3:16 pm

ESPN SUX! Im tired of their hate for the south. They have a huge Seahawks push on their website. Almost like they a “willing” a win for the Seahawks.

Larry

January 8th, 2013
3:19 pm

“they need to win in the postseason now”

As opposed to not winning in the postseason now?

Ok, Captain Obvious!

Mitch (the one in Rome)

January 8th, 2013
3:22 pm

Well said extremus. People act like there is a “great coach” fairy that Blank could just ring up and get a winner. Bottom line is that CMS is a great coach, best in Falcon history. He and TD are a great combo. They are 5 years into one of the best makeovers in NFL history. Oh how quickly people forget how bad our team was and what a mess it was.

Smith and Ryan have won, will continue to win and will produce in the playoffs. People forgot Belichick used to coach the Browns and they sucked bad. Coaches grow and coach Smith is growing and his team doesn’t suck.

Calm down people!

Larry

January 8th, 2013
3:24 pm

The Falcons will win…by a minimum of 10 points.

This game is close only in the minds of the unknowing.

After America

January 8th, 2013
3:33 pm

Dig the raptor bowl!!!!

As much as I respect the Falcons, they have not been severely tested this year, fattening their regular season record on cupcakes like Jacksonville, Carolina, and No Orleans. Trust me, the Seahawks are the consensus pick as the one team that NO ONE wants to play right now.

Seahawks 31-14

Reebok

January 8th, 2013
3:38 pm

I would predict another Falcons choke if they were playing against an established QB, but I don’t think Wilson can get it done against the Falcons in the Dome. It would be nice to get a win, but the winner of the Green Bay-San Francisco game will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl in any case.

SB

January 8th, 2013
3:39 pm

I hope the fans will show up in good form this Sunday, and show that Seattle is not the only place that can get ridiculously loud. Let’s be our own 12th Man!

dooney

January 8th, 2013
3:40 pm

I agree 31 -17 Sea hawks!!!!