If you're watching any NFL Network, ESPN or similar these days, you're being inundated with the "Falcons haven't won in the postseason with Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, therefore doom and gloom!" narrative. There are several quantifiable ways in which the 2012 Falcons have set themselves apart from the 2008, 2010 and 2011 squads, and all of them give logical reasons to not just hope for, but expect, playoff success from this team on Sunday and beyond.
Matt Ryan has certainly progressed as a player since his rookie season. In the 2012 regular season, Ryan had nearly as many completions (422) as he had attempts (434) in 2008. His completion percentage has increased nearly each season, starting at 61.1% in 2008, 62.5% in 2010, a slight regression behind a spotty offensive line in 2011 with 61.3%, and this season, a big step forward with a 68.6% completion rate. Ryan's total yards and yards per game have consistently increased each season, from 3,440 total yards and 215 yards per game in 2008, to 4,719 total yards and 294.9 yards per game this season. This season, Ryan has doubled his rookie season passing touchdowns, from 16 in 2008 to 32, setting a team record, this season.
I can hear the naysayers now: none of this means anything if Ryan can't execute in the playoffs. But, the numbers illustrate a young player who has consistently improved over each season of his career, and has, over the course of each season, exhibited greater command over the passing game. It's logical to expect that Ryan's consistent improvement, especially with receiving weapons like Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez at his disposal, can contribute to postseason success this season.
This season, even in the three games the Falcons lost, when they definitely weren't playing their best football, they managed to fight back and keep the games close. Their biggest loss this season was by ten to the Panthers in Carolina. The other two losses were by five and four points, respectively. In 2008 Atlanta lost to Tampa Bay by 15, the Panthers by 15, the Eagles by 13, and to the Broncos and the Saints by four. 2010 saw two close losses, to the Steelers by six and the Saints by three, but the Falcons lost to the Eagles by 14. Last season was more inconsistent. The Falcons lost to the Bears by 18, to Tampa Bay by three, the Packers by 11, the Saints by three, Houston by seven, and the Saints by 29.
The Falcons are under a lot of pressure this week as we all endure the constant "playoff failure" conversation. It's not the first time they've faced pressure like this in the 2012 season. The Falcons were condemned by the media and a significant percentage of the NFL-watching population to a loss to New Orleans in the Georgia Dome, and the media focus was the "resurgent" Saints and New Orleans' playoff hopes being very much alive. Matt Ryan and the offense did not play their best football, but the defense absolutely dominated, picking off Drew Brees five times and breaking his impressive streak of consecutive games with a passing touchdown. The Falcons won, shutting down the Saints playoff hopes and shutting up the media for at least a few minutes.
The Falcons also were under some pressure connected to the New York Giants when they visited the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. We all vividly remember last year's playoff game in the Meadowlands--and if you're fortunate enough to not remember it vividly, Dave covered it in his piece on Atlanta's playoff history, which is a great read. The discussion leading up to this season's game against the New York Giants was centered around the Falcons being worse than their record indicated, and the prevailing expectation was that the Giants would dominate. The Falcons responded by shutting out the Giants 34-0.
Another key element that points toward likely postseason success for the Falcons this year is the cumulative playoff experience on the team. In 2008, Matt Ryan's rookie season, the Falcons team that lost to the Arizona Cardinals by four points had played in 72 postseason games total. In 2010, when the Falcons went 13-3 and secured the top seed in the NFC and a first round bye, much like this season, that Falcons team had played in just 58 playoff games. Last season, which ended in that 24-2 heartbreak in the Meadowlands, the Falcons roster as a whole had played in 68 postseason games.
This season, the most promising season for the Falcons in Matt Ryan and Mike Smith's five year tenure, the current Falcons roster cumulatively has played in a total of 117 postseason games. That experience is a key difference. These are guys who have, for the most part, been there before. Guys like Chris Hope, who has a Super Bowl ring and chose to come to the Falcons as a backup safety, because he believes this team can win it all this season. Guys like Asante Samuel, who has two rings, knows what it takes to achieve that ultimate success, and has every intention of hoisting that Lombardi this season. As Jay Adams at AtlantaFalcons.com writes, this team wants to win it all this season for the veterans, like Todd McClure, Mike Peterson, and, of course, Tony Gonzalez, the best tight end to ever play the position, who wants--and deserves--a ring before he hangs it up after this season.
According to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, in one of the laziest comments of all time from someone who is paid to cover the National Football League, the Falcons are "not a trendy pick," but It's irrational to sentence Mike Smith and Matt Ryan to a lifetime of playoff failure because they have not yet experienced postseason success. While there are plenty of guys on the Falcons roster who were around for the playoff appearances in 2008, 2010 and 2011, the maturity and collective experience of the 2012 Falcons makes this team fundamentally different.
What the media thinks, and what NFL fans in general think, doesn't matter at all. What matters is, the 2012 Falcons have proven that they can rise to the challenge. The 2012 Falcons have shown that, when Drew Brees declares that the Saints own the division, they'll be delighted to prove otherwise. The 2012 Falcons have shown an ability to shake off an ugly playoff loss to the Giants in the 2011 postseason to shut out the same team on their home turf. With the ways this team has matured and progressed, I'm not just hoping for playoff success this season. I'm expecting it.