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For the Atlanta Falcons, the Divisional Round game is a question of legacy and reputation

Reputation is secondary to winning, but it’s at stake here, regardless.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Matt Ryan has a good shot at the MVP award this year. I’ve been reluctant to type this because it feels equal parts surreal and jinxable, but I’m now ready to marvel at his success. As others have noted, if Ryan puts up his career averages over another five years or so, he’ll wind up finishing in the top ten in most career categories for quarterbacks, which is partly a function of this pass-happy league and partly a testament to his quietly excellent play.

When it comes time to consider his legacy and the reputation of these Falcons, though, this upcoming playoff game against the Seahawks carries more weight than the records, at least over the short haul. That stuff matters a great deal to some fans and not a lot to others, but when it comes to future Hall of Fame cases, pulling down primetime games in the season ahead, and creating a nice buzz around that very expensive new stadium, it’s relevant.

We’re all hopeful the Falcons will win the Super Bowl this year—I’m not yet convinced they will, though I remain optimistic given just how good this offense has been—but we’ve got to tackle one obstacle at a time regardless. For that reason, and for the team’s postseason reputation, a win in the Divisional Round is a big deal.

A history of falling short

The Falcons have a reputation for being playoff failures, and sadly, that’s mostly warranted. They’ve made the Super Bowl just once (they lost, as I don’t need to remind you), and they’ve pushed as far as the NFC Conference Championship two other times (2004 and 2012). Under Mike Smith, they were playoff-bound four times, and Matt Ryan and company came away with a 1-4 record in those games. They’ve been called choke artists, losers, and worse, and Ryan has borne a lot of that as the quarterback of this team.

Ryan has had a couple of mediocre games in the postseason—the 2010 loss to Green Bay certainly comes readily to mind—but he was good against the Seahawks in 2012 and played a very good game against the 49ers, minus a couple of poor throws. The reputation comes more from his team’s record than his play, but at this point, nothing short of a deep postseason run (and probably a Super Bowl ring) is going to change the fact that many fans, analysts, and even people around the game think he can’t get it done in the playoffs.

As we all know, those reputations harden over time until they are effectively cemented in the minds of those who hold them. A loss against the Seahawks will confirm that the Falcons are a team that’s only dangerous in the regular season for many. We can say all we want that we don’t care about that reputation, and for many of us that may be true, but the problem with a reputation for losing the big game is that it tends to go hand-in-hand with actually losing the big game. That we do care about.

The road ahead

I’m not suggesting the Falcons should be satisfied if they fall short of a Super Bowl victory, but I would suggest that our expectations for this year did not reach the heights they’ve already attained, and a playoff win would indicate to me that the train is headed in the right direction. After all, Dan Quinn and company have not come close to re-building the defense the way they want to, and the offense has all the pieces to be effective for at least the next couple of seasons.

To win, they’ll need to take down a team that has been #elite for the past few seasons in the Seahawks, an offensive powerhouse in either the Packers or Cowboys, and the AFC’s finest. It’s not insurmountable, frankly, and each win along the way burnishes this Falcons team a little more, and validates what Dan Quinn and company have been cooking up for this Falcons team.

This is a playoff team in 2017, I firmly believe, if they just play their cards right over the offseason. The offense might pull back a bit, but I firmly believe they will be a better team next year.

A win keeps this playoff run going, serves as a triumph for the entire organization, and in some way legitimizes all the progress Atlanta has made over the last two seasons. A loss, unfortunately, ensures that the team won’t get to shed its reputation. For that reason—and many, many others—I’m hoping for a big victory here that helps to put the doubts to rest.