Three times in four seasons, the Falcons of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have been eliminated by the eventual NFC champ. This isn’t, however, to suggest they keep being undone by an unlucky draw. In each case, the Falcons entered with the better regular-season record. When it happens once or even twice, we can shrug and say, “Them’s the breaks.” When it happens three times since 2008, we pluck at common threads. And we find …
• In each case, the Falcons held a lead. They’d rallied from a 14-3 deficit to lead 17-14 at the half in Phoenix on Jan. 3, 2009, but the Arizona Cardinals — who’d lost four of their final six regular-season games to finish 9-7 — scored the next 16 points. The game turned on the second play of the second half, when Darnell Dockett thwarted Ryan’s handoff to Michael Turner. Antrell Rolle grabbed the ball and returned it for a touchdown.
Against Green Bay in the Georgia Dome on Jan. 15, 2010, the Falcons led 7-0 after the Packers’ Greg Jennings fumbled on the opening possession and 14-7 after Eric Weems returned a kickoff 102 yards. But Tramon Williams intercepted Ryan twice in the second quarter, and the second, on the half’s final play, was returned for the touchdown that gave Green Bay a 28-14 lead.
Against the Giants in the Meadowlands two weeks back, the Falcons’ lead was more modest. But they missed a chance to make it 9-0 when, after the first-quarter safety, they drove to the Giants’ 42 but chose to punt on fourth-and-1. (As we know, the Falcons couldn’t get a fourth-and-1 right this whole season.)
• In each case, the Falcons were feeble after halftime. They were outscored 16-7 by Arizona, 20-7 by Green Bay, 17-0 by the Giants. (That’s an aggregate of 53-14.) On the only fourth-quarter play of the three games that truly mattered, linebacker Keith Brooking, since jettisoned, bit on Kurt Warner’s play-fake on third-and-16; the conversion enabled Arizona to run out the clock.
• In each case, Ryan was the second-best quarterback on the field. Ryan had six turnovers and was tackled for a safety in his first two playoff starts, and he hasn’t yet thrown for even 200 yards in a postseason game. His playoff passer rating is 71.8, which is awful. But saying Ryan has been the second-best quarterback on the field cuts both ways.
• In each case, the Falcons’ defense had no answer for the opposing quarterback. Granted, the three quarterbacks in question — Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning — are/were outstanding. But the Falcons’ defense has managed a total of three sacks and one interception (by Chevis Jackson on a tipped ball against Arizona) in those three playoff losses, and the aggregate passer rating against Atlanta has been 123.5, which is obscene.
• In each case, Michael Turner was no factor. His rushing numbers in the playoff losses are notably similar — 42 yards against Arizona, 39 against Green Bay, 41 against the Giants. His longest rush in those three games has been 13 yards. He has scored one touchdown.
OK, enough fun with numbers. What conclusions can be drawn?
That Ryan isn’t yet good enough to win playoff games by himself. That Turner is just another guy when the playoffs arrive. That playoff-caliber defenses can push the Falcons’ offensive line backward. That the Falcons’ defense, overhauled after the Arizona loss, still isn’t of winning playoff-caliber. (You must get sacks. You must force turnovers. You must make great quarterbacks play less than great.) That an offense capable of winning 43 regular-season wins over four seasons has been made to look outmoded in January.
And now you’re asking: With all these failings, should the Falcons throw up their hands in surrender? Why, no. Hiring two new coordinators in the same offseason is the closest thing to a fresh start a winning franchise can have. Mike Mularkey’s pitch-and-putt offense didn’t work in the postseason, and Brian VanGorder’s defense made almost nothing happen in those three playoff losses. Now Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan get to try. It’s possible that they’ll do better. Regarding recent postseason results, it’s not possible to do worse.
But there is, believe it or not, a greater concern than tactics. Only once in the three playoff losses did the Falcons even stir in the second half, and that was against Arizona. In the two subsequent defeats we saw something close to surrender. You cannot surrender. You have to believe the next play will turn a losing game your way, to believe your defensive back can strip a receiver in the end zone or that your punt coverage can induce a fumble.
The teams headed for Indianapolis aren’t going because everything went right. They’ll grace the Super Bowl because they kept playing hard enough to make something go right. For all the good work done by this administration, I still don’t see the same unyielding demeanor in the Falcons I see in champions. I see instead a team that hasn’t yet decided how good it cares to be.
By Mark Bradley