ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons entered the playoffs as the NFC’s top seed, but they were a top seed with a caveat, the less-than-imposing team that some opponents actually wanted to face.
That matters little now. Falcons Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and tight end Tony Gonzalez got their first postseason victory last weekend, using a dramatic drive in the final minute to beat the Seattle Seahawks after squandering a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter. That has left them hosting the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game Sunday at the Georgia Dome, and no longer caring about the doubts that accompanied their front-runner status as the playoffs got under way.
“The goal of this team is not to win one playoff game,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said after Sunday’s 30-28 triumph over the Seahawks. “The outsiders said we can’t win in the playoffs. Now they have to come up with other things to say. Our goal is to get the next win and then the one after that.”
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that the NFC’s No. 1 seed won a conference semifinal. The Falcons, after all, are loaded with talent and are a relatively balanced team. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Ryan. They have a workhorse running back in Michael Turner, a Hall of Fame-bound tight end in Gonzalez and arguably the league’s finest wide receiver tandem in Julio Jones and Roddy White.
They ranked eighth in the league in total offense during the regular season, and although they were a modest 24th in total defense based on yards allowed, they were fifth in scoring defense. They won 11 of their first 12 games and finished the regular season 13-3.
Yet when the Washington Redskins were readying for their first-round playoff game against the Seahawks, with the winner likely headed to Atlanta, several people within the organization were convinced that if the Redskins could find a way to defeat Seattle, they certainly would beat the Falcons the following weekend. Some at Redskins Park were convinced of it.
There simply was a been-there, done-that feeling with the Falcons and the playoffs. They had been the top seed in the NFC playoffs two years ago, only to lose their opening postseason game at home to the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl. They had become consistent winners since Smith and Ryan arrived together in 2008, with 56 regular season victories over that span. But the Falcons were 0-3 in the playoffs with Smith and Ryan. Gonzalez was 0-5 in the postseason in his otherwise-brilliant 16-year NFL career spent with the Kansas City Chiefs and Falcons.
Even Gonzalez acknowledged in the locker room Sunday evening that there was, for him, a here-we-go-again feeling when the Seahawks turned a 27-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter into a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds to play. No matter. Ryan remained calm and used two completions to put the Falcons in position for Matt Bryant’s game-winning, 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left.
“It’s kind of the same message that I say in those situations every time I go out there,” Ryan said. “It’s not a big fire-and-brimstone speech. It’s more of just, ‘Let’s go out there and do our job. We’ve got time. We’ve got the timeouts. We need to execute.’ ”
Ryan’s 56 regular-season wins are the most ever for a quarterback after his first five NFL seasons. And now he no longer must answer questions about his lack of a single playoff victory, something about which he expressed relief soon after the winning drive against the Seahawks.
“Your past experiences kind of harden you,” he said. “They make you a little tougher in those types of situations.”
Now the focus for the Falcons no longer is securing a first postseason victory. It’s finding a way to beat the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl.
“The naysayers would say we got a monkey off our back,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “But this team knew from the beginning of the season what we are capable of.”
Gonzalez said in the locker room last Sunday evening he remains 95 percent certain that he will retire after this season. The Falcons are one win from making a Super Bowl appearance his grand sendoff.
“This isn’t it,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve told you from the beginning, our goals are still trying to get to the Super Bowl and win. And this is one step closer for us, and I’m happy for it."