FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. – Matt Ryan stood at his locker, hemmed in by a three-deep semicircle of reporters and cameras. Everyone present knew The Question was coming. Three minutes and forty seconds into the conference, after the requisite how's-the-moods and Seattle-looks-toughs were out of the way, The Question reared its ugly head:
"This organization needs a win in the playoffs. How do you deal with the expectations?”
The Question has dogged the Falcons for Ryan's entire five-year career. How could a team with multiple Pro Bowlers, a team that's averaged better than 11 wins a season the last five years, not have a single postseason victory since 2004? And how does Atlanta shake from its back a monkey that's grown to silverback size? As it has been all season, that's the key storyline for Atlanta this weekend when they face the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's divisional playoff game.
To his credit, Ryan didn't sigh or roll his eyes or clench his fists or mutter "Give me strength” or anything else that most of us would do if we were asked the exact same unanswerable question over and over and over. No, he simply nodded and gave the perfect non-answer answer:
"I don't worry about it. I don't think about it," he said, emphatically enough. "We want to play our best football, and that's what I'm worried about, how to play our best football on Sunday."
Part of the reason why Atlanta has had so much trouble in January lies in some spectacularly unfortunate postseason matchups. In each of the last three playoffs, the team that ended the Falcons' season has gone on to the Super Bowl, and two (Green Bay in 2010 and New York last year) have won it all. Year after year, Atlanta has run up against the toughest teams in football at the exact moment they were at their toughest.
But why can't the Falcons be one of those tough teams? Why can't they step up, knock a team in the mouth and leave another city's fanbase in the dust as it marches to the Super Bowl?
These are tougher questions, and they can't be answered by simple statistics. Certainly there's plenty of reason for the Falcons and their fans to hope. From one perspective, this is the most disciplined team in NFL history: the team set league records for fewest penalties (55) and fewest penalty yards (415) over a full season. That's a hallmark of a team that doesn't beat itself.
Atlanta also has a three-pronged air attack that, in theory, should overwhelm Richard Sherman and the Seattle secondary. Tony Gonzalez, in particular, will give the Seahawks matchup fits. And Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combine to give Atlanta at least one healthy and solid running back.
The Seahawks come to town bruised from its first-round throwdown with Washington. Chris Clemons, Seattle's best pass rusher, suffered a torn ACL and is out for the season. And Russell Wilson, although he already has more playoff wins than Ryan, is still a rookie playing on the biggest of all stages. Seattle's also 3-5 on the road this season, while Atlanta is 7-1 at home.
"When you watch their film, they do a lot of the same things week in and week out, and they do them well,” Ryan said. "They can trust their guys to get it done.”
So what's dogged Atlanta? Is it simple bad luck in the matchups, or is there something less tangible at work? Head coach Mike Smith brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The front office beefed up the defense. And the team bonded in a quiet, confident, no-nicknames way. All that led to a 13-win regular season and a team destined for the playoffs since late September.
Getting to the playoffs, though, is no longer enough. And now, Atlanta's hopes center on Ryan. If he's able to find Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones downfield … if he's able to misdirect the defense enough to give Turner and Rodgers room to run … if he's able to manage the push-pull of a game to give his defense a break, Atlanta could be in for a historic afternoon. If he's able to take Atlanta to the promised land, he'll join the Brees-Rodgers-Brady-Manning echelon of elite active quarterbacks. He's got the statistics, now he needs the banner in the rafters.
In interviews, Ryan is engaging but distant, a master of the amiable evasion. He spins out the classic sports clichés, but does so in a friendly way that masks the fact that he's not really telling you anything. For instance, he noted Wednesday that he absorbed some tough lessons from the years of playoff losses, but was plenty vague on what those lessons were.
"You learn a lot about your preparation," he said. "My preparation this year even during the regular season has been different than the last four [years], so that's helped me. Each game comes down to four or five different plays, and it comes down to who makes those plays." So will he disclose those new preparations? "No," he said with a smile.
Perhaps that's the best way to handle The Question, answer it without committing to it. If Atlanta wins, it's officially a non-story once and for all. If Atlanta loses, well, Ryan already knows that territory like a second playbook. It all comes down to Sunday.
"This is what you work for," Ryan said. "This is what you put in time during the offseason, during mini-camp, during the [Organized Team Activities], during training camp, to give yourself an opportunity to play at this time."
Ryan and the Falcons are going to answer The Question one way or another on Sunday afternoon. And they'll either bury it under the Georgia Dome turf, or they'll leave it to wander around for another offseason only to show up again in August.
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