We all know the Falcons don't have a particularly proud history before the late 1990's. What you may not realize is that this is only the 12th playoff appearance in the franchise's nearly 50 year history.
I thought it might be fun (?) to look back at how the Falcons have fared in their history during their eleven playoff runs to this point.
First of all, the Falcons were so inept through their first decade-plus that it took them until 1978 to make their first playoff appearance, which tells you something in and of itself.
Led by Steve Bartkowski and the immortal Wallace Francis, the '78 Falcons squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 finish in the NFC West. They beat the Ron Jaworski-led Eagles 14-13 in the Wild Card round, led by a crazy game from Francis, who reeled in six catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. This was the first playoff run in team history, and it might have gone further if not for the need to face the 12-4 Dallas Cowboys in the next round.
The Cowboys overcame 20 first half points from the Falcons to win, 27-20, taking advantage of one of Bart's worst days. Bartkowski threw three picks and completed under 50% of his passes and the Falcons never scored in the second half. The Cowboys went to the Super Bowl, and the Falcons went home.
Two years later the Falcons were back again. This time, Atlanta went 11-5 in the regular season, paced by Bartkowski's record-setting year (31 touchdowns!) and William Andrews rushing for 1,308 yards. They were a damn good football team this year, but they drew the Cowboys again in the Divisional Round.
This one was a heartbreaker. The Falcons were up 24-10 going into the fourth quarter and Bartkowski & Co. had a strong game. Unfortunately, the defense collapsed in the last quarter of play, allowing the Cowboys to score 20 points and leading to a narrow 30-27 loss. The Cowboys would go on to lose to the Eagles, and the Falcons would lick their wounds and try to regroup.
Two more years, another playoff appearance. This one was unusual, because it happened during a players' strike that wiped out almost half the year. As a result, the Falcons made the playoffs with a 5-4 record.
This game was close, and the Falcons once again allowed their opponent to take over in the fourth quarter. The Minnesota Vikings score 14 in the final quarter to win 30-24, but the story of this game was another disappointing effort from Steve Bartkowski, who threw two picks and no touchdowns. The team simply couldn't close it out.
The Falcons came close three times to advancing in the playoffs during the Bartkowski era, but only won one game. It's a lamentable fate for some very talented football teams, and '82 signaled the end of an era. The Falcons wouldn't make the playoffs again for nearly a decade.
This was the first playoff game of my lifetime, and one I remember vividly. These Falcons were led by Chris Miller and a pass-friendly attack that led them to an 11-5 record and a spot in the Wild Card round against the sad sack New Orleans Saints. The Falcons only won this game by a touchdown, but they held a lead all game and Miller was brilliant, with an assist from Michael Haynes' 144 receiving yards.
You could forgive Falcons fans for feeling optimism following that game, but it was not to be. They were promptly pummeled by the Washington Redskins in the next round, 24-7, and that was Miller's first and only playoff appearance with the team. The Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl. You'll begin to sense a pattern here.
This was the year the immortal Jeff George-led Falcons made a playoff splash, with June Jones coaching. This was arguably the finest year of George's career, and it was actually an extremely talented team in general. Bert Emanuel and Terrance Mathis were in the primes of their careers, Craig Heyward manned running back for the team and the defense was solid. The fact that they went only 9-7 in the regular season was a mild disappointment.
So was the playoff game. The Packers jumped out to a 27-10 lead by halftime and never came close to relinquishing it, eventually winning 37-20. The Falcons' defense couldn't hold it together against the Favre-led Packers and the offense couldn't quite catch up after losing an early 7-0 lead, leading to the Falcons' sixth disappointing post-season.
The Packers went to the Conference Championship before losing to the Dallas Cowboys.
I don't need to summarize this season, do I? Every Falcon fan's fondest memory is of watching the '98 Falcons play, led by Chris Chandler's finest season, Jamal Anderson's crazy legs and a perpetually underrated defense. They won 14 games in the regular season, steamrolling all comers and setting themselves up with a juicy matchup against a reeling 49ers team.
They picked Steve Young three times in that game but still only managed a narrow 20-18 win. That seemed to signal trouble for the Falcons at the time, but we had no idea what was in store. The harrowing 30-27 win over the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings remains the greatest single win of my lifetime, decided as it was by a missed field goal from Minny and Morten Andersen's 38 yard boot. It was another narrow win, but it was against arguably the best team in the NFL. After 32 long, miserable years, it marked Atlanta's first trip to the Super Bowl.
It made what followed more painful. Sitting in front of a plate of wings that I left to get cold and dry, I watched the Falcons (marred already by Eugene Robinson's awful prostitution scandal) lose a miserable 34-19 Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos in a game they were never really competitive in. It was a watershed moment in the life of a 14 year old fan, and I suspect it was for many of you, as well.
The Falcons tumbled the next year, and while I'll always remember '98 fondly, the way it ended will always stick in my craw.
Many things had changed by this point. Dan Reeves was still in town, but Chris Chandler and Jamal Anderson were banished to history's scrap heap. In their place came exciting young quarterback Michael Vick and the excellent Warrick Dunn, as well as legendary tight end Alge Crumpler. These Falcons were a little lucky to get into the playoffs at 9-6-1, but they made the most of it.
The 27-7 win at Lambeau Field over the Favre-led Green Bay Packers is one of the finest moments in franchise history, and it snapped Green Bay's long winning streak at home in the playoffs. The Falcons dominated this one more or less from start to finish, and it was hard not to watch Vick run all over the field and not feel like great things were in store.
Alas, the Falcons ran into the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round. They bottled up Vick, forced mistakes and ended up winning, 20-6, leading to a premature end for Atlanta. Their divisional rivals the Buccaneers would take home the Lombardi that year, instead.
The Falcons returned to the playoffs two years later with a similar cast of characters, but everyone was a couple of years older and a couple of years better. It showed in the regular season, as the Falcons went 11-5 and rolled into the Divisional Round against the St. Louis Rams with plenty of confidence and the electrifying Vick at the helm.
The Rams were completely overmatched. The Falcons won 47-17, with Vick and Dunn combining for over 250 yards on the ground and the defense shutting down Marshall Faulk completely. It was a truly dominant effort, and once again we were left to salivate over what would happen when the Falcons got a shot at revenge against the Eagles in the Conference Championship.
The 13-3 Eagles under Andy Reid just had the Falcons' number, though. They once again bottled up Vick and walked away with a 27-10 victory, heading to the Super Bowl to lose to the New England Patriots. Vick was out of Atlanta by the time the Falcons returned to the post-season, and it was easily the high point of Jim Mora's coaching career.
Expectations were low coming into this season. The Falcons had a freshman head coach in Mike Smith, a rookie quarterback in Matt Ryan and not a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Atlanta shocked everyone.
The team went 11-5 in the regular season, led by a truly dominant year from Michael Turner and Ryan's surprisingly effective rookie campaign. They rolled into the playoffs against Kurt Warner's Cardinals, a 10-6 team they seemed to match up well against.
The Falcons were eventually undone by mistakes and bad luck, with Ryan's two interceptions and Keith Brooking's lousy coverage coming readily to mind. They dropped a disappointingly close 30-24 game (I remember watching the game from an inn on my honeymoon and swearing up a storm), and the Cardinals went on to face the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
After one injury-plagued year off, the Falcons returned to the playoffs in 2010. For the first time in the team's history, they were the NFC's #1 seed, riding excellent performances in narrow games and a well-rounded team to a 13-3 record. It looked like a very promising post-season for the Falcons, who were nigh unstoppable at the Dome.
Unfortunately, they ran into the buzzsaw. The Green Bay Packers under Aaron Rodgers played one of the best football games you'll ever see and the Falcons struggled to get their offense going, leading to an embarrassing 48-15 beatdown at home. The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, but this was the end of Falcons fans just being happy with playoff appearances and the rise of heavy criticism for the Falcons and Mike Smith. Depending on how 2012 goes, this might be the defining playoff game of the Smith era.
The Falcons bounced back nicely, though, returning to the playoffs in 2011. Led by Michael Turner's last truly good season and Ryan's continued emergence as a franchise quarterback, these Falcons were offensively terrific and defensively sound. They went 10-6 and drew the New York Giants in the Wild Card round.
This one still stings. After carrying a 2-0 lead into the second quarter and a 7-2 deficit into halftime, the Falcons came unglued in the second half, with the defense letting up a little bit and the offense putting on an embarrassing display that certainly would have gotten Mike Mularkey fired if he hadn't bolted for Jacksonville in the off-season. The Giants, of course, went on to beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
In a dozen playoff appearances, the Falcons have six wins. They have one Super Bowl appearance, two appearances in the conference championships and a lot of bitterly disappointing losses. Five of those appearances ended in losses to the eventual Super Bowl representative from the NFC, which doesn't really help me feel any better about them.
As you can see, this is indisputably the finest era of Falcons football ever. The '98 Falcons were the best team Atlanta ever put on the field, and the Bart years yielded three playoff appearances and one win, but these Falcons are the only ones to put together four playoff appearances under one coach. They're searching for that elusive playoff win, but history tells us they have plenty of company from the ghosts of Atlanta's past.
Discuss the team's playoff history right here, if you would.