ATLANTA – In the minutes after their dramatic 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons locker room was a heady mix of elation, anticipation and aw-yeah-we-weren't-worried bravado Sunday. Sure, they'd frittered away a 20-point lead, surrendered a go-ahead touchdown and won on a field goal/interception combo in the final seconds, but hey, a win is a win, right?
Player after player repeated the mantra "We'd been here before," and it's true, they had been in situations where they needed to come from behind to win. Most teams that go 13-3 don't win every game easily.
This wasn't just coming from behind, though. This was nearly a franchise-defining choke, a loss that – and this is not exaggeration – would have haunted the Falcons' fan base for a generation. Everyone could breathe easily and laugh about what hurdles they'd just cleared, that gut-clenching terror at the thought of a humiliating loss releasing as booming laughter.
So it fell to cornerback Dunta Robinson to provide a look deep inside after Atlanta pulled out the NFC divisional win: "We've got to develop a killer mentality. We don't put people away well enough when we get the chance."
Wait … we're two weeks into the playoffs, one game from setting the Super Bowl matchup, and this team still hasn't developed a killer mentality? Asked to confirm his statement, and why he thinks Atlanta doesn't yet possess the shut-'em-down mindset, Robinson shrugged and offered a wry smile. "Who knows? But we get another chance. Winning is a great thing."
We could go X's and O's all day long on how the Falcons let a 20-0 halftime lead turn into a 28-27 deficit with less than a minute remaining. The Falcons' rush defense was nonexistent; Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had enough time in the pocket to make a sandwich. Seahawks pass-catchers, particularly tight end Zach Miller, were so wide open in the middle of the field it appeared Atlanta was fielding nine men. And the Falcons attacked Marshawn Lynch as if playing two-hand touch.
But while all those elements combined to give Seattle freight-train momentum, the Falcons can't explain the intangible pall that settled over the entire Georgia Dome as Seattle piled up yards by the dozen. Why couldn't Atlanta nail Seattle's coffin shut early in the third quarter? Why don't the Falcons terrify teams when they get out to a three-possession lead? Why is Atlanta, now 14-3, already a three-point underdog to the 49ers in the NFC championship at home?
Tough questions to answer with only seven days to answer them.
"Way too many passing yards [surrendered], way too many yards with the quarterback scrambling as well," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said after the game, and those are words that should send fear down the spine of any Falcons fan who watched Colin Kaepernick do his Usain Bolt/Joe Montana love child impression against the Packers Saturday night.
All right, so … enough with the piling on. Bottom line: Atlanta did actually win this game. An ugly win counts just as much as a blowout. At last, the team got over the playoff hump, the playoff Everest, that has haunted this team the entire Smith-Matt Ryan era. On his fourth attempt, Ryan has notched his first playoff win, and Atlanta has shown that it can bend pretty much as far as a team can without breaking. To hear Ryan tell it, the team learned from these past few years of season-ending heartache.
"I think your past experiences kind of harden you," he said after the game. "I think they make you a little tougher in these types of situations. … It's difficult to win in the NFL this time of year because you're playing against the best teams in the league. With that in mind, if you have an opportunity with time still on the clock, then you feel like you can get it done."
Like a college student who crams all night and manages an A on the final exam, the Falcons are setting a dangerous precedent with that mindset. Comebacks are fine, as long as you're not coming back from giving away everything you'd gathered up beforehand. The best teams in the league aren't going to let you get away with that very often.
So with that in mind, what did Atlanta learn from its defensive meltdown? "Play a 60-minute game," Robinson said. "We've been in these kinds of situations before, and we'll be in them again. But it's never over if you're close. That's how the NFL works."
If anything, this game functioned as a quality walkthrough for next week's NFC championship showdown: "Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are mobile quarterbacks who throw the ball at extremely accurate levels," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We can use this game as a cheat sheet to prepare for next week."
It's a good idea. Sometimes, you're better off reminding yourself of what not to do.
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