It’s time to do this. It’s time to win a playoff game before this “Mike Smith/Matt Ryan-can’t-win-a-playoff-game” takes real root. (And it hasn’t yet. Two examples do not a representative sample make.) It’s time for the Falcons to win a playoff game because there’s no reason they shouldn’t.
Who thinks so? Well, here was general manager Thomas Dimitroff, speaking after Thursday’s practice: “Our expectations going into this year were for more than just getting the playoffs. Does that answer you?”
The Falcons didn’t have quite the regular season we or they expected, but they’re here now, in essentially the same position as the Packers were a year ago. The Giants are favored, but only by a field goal, which is the standard home-field allotment. The Falcons had the better record. They’d also seem to have more good players — do you see a Michael Turner on the Giants? A Tony Gonzalez? Anything approaching the combination of Roddy White and Julio Jones? — and the numbers second the emotion.
Total defense: The Falcons ranked 12th against the Giants’ 27th.
Passing defense: 20th against 29th.
Rushing defense: 6th against 19th.
Rushing offense: 17th against 32nd.
Passing offense: 8th against 5th.
Total offense: 12th against 10th.
The Falcons ranked in the NFL’s upper half using four of the six measures, the Giants in two. In the two categories that saw the Giants lead, the advantage was negligible. In the four categories that saw the Falcons lead, the advantage was significant.
Giants advocates will suggest that their team changed when the pass rusher Osi Umenyiora got semi-healthy toward season’s end, and the defensive line is the one place where the Falcons suffer by comparison. New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul had 16 1/2 sacks; the Falcons as a team managed only 26. If the Giants sack Ryan a half-dozen times, they’ll win. If they don’t … well, that No. 29 ranking in passing yards yielded doesn’t suggest a team steeped in coverage, does it?
And that last-in-the-NFL-in-yards-rushing metric suggests the home team isn’t going to get ahead and run the ball and eat the clock. Eli Manning will have to keep throwing to keep his team moving. Ryan figures to get more help from his backs. If the Falcons can run it even a bit, that front four will have to gear down.
There’s no reason the Falcons shouldn’t win this game. They have the better defense and the more balanced offense. Stem to stern, they have the more talented roster. And it is, to return to our earlier point, time. This team has been together long enough. We’re approaching prove-it-or-lose-it territory.
Said Curtis Lofton, the superb middle linebacker: “It is [time]. We’re not happy just being here. The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.”
Can this team win the Super Bowl?
Lofton: “I think we can. We’ve got enough talent in here.”
In 2008, when the up-from-misery Falcons went to Arizona and were undone by the 9-7 Cardinals, that team wasn’t ready yet. Last year the Falcons should have been, but one awful Saturday night — the 48-21 loss to the sixth-seeded Packers — all but overrode a 13-3 regular season. But the Falcons went to school on that rout, same as they had on the Arizona loss, and they traded up to draft the rookie Jones, who has made a difference the past month. Just on talent, this team is better than last season’s.
That said, the repeated failures against playoff-caliber opponents — swept by the Saints, beaten at home again by the Packers, beaten on the road by the Texans’ No. 3 quarterback — leaves cause for doubt: Why can’t players this good win big games? And that’s a question that will stay attached to these Falcons until they prove otherwise.
They’re ready to prove otherwise. Some thought the Packers’ victory over Detroit last week did the Falcons a huge service by sending them to New Jersey, as opposed to New Orleans yet again. “I kind of hoped we’d go back to New Orleans,” Lofton said, “especially with the way they did us.”
He meant the Saints letting Drew Brees throw at the end of a rout to break Dan Marino’s yardage record. If anything, that nationally televised indignity rekindled a flame that might otherwise have been doused. The Falcons lost by 29 points to their nemesis, and by rights that should have damaged their self-esteem. But the way the New Orleans game ended only poked at their pride.
The Falcons left New Orleans mad, and they played mad against Tampa Bay last week, and they’ll arrive at the Meadowlands angry enough to do real damage not just in this game but deeper into January. They’ll win Sunday because it’s time for them to win, and before they’re done they might well see New Orleans again.
By Mark Bradley