Even with the surging Seattle Seahawks standing in the way, the Atlanta Falcons are confident they can end their recent playoff struggles.
The top-seeded Falcons look to avoid a fifth consecutive playoff defeat while the Seahawks try to continue their postseason run with a seventh straight victory in Sunday's NFC divisional contest at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta (13-3) is 56-24 in five seasons under coach Mike Smith, but 0-3 in the playoffs over the previous four. The Falcons have totaled 441 yards and allowed 884 while being outscored 72-23 in their last two playoff contests, including a 48-21 loss to Green Bay two years ago when they also held the NFC's top seed.
Though the Falcons' playoff futility has been a dark cloud hanging over Smith's otherwise successful tenure, they believe they've learned from the past playoff.
"We're a much more mature team because of our experiences,'' Smith said. "I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs. This is a team that has been very focused from the very beginning of the season and we've got a lot of guys who have experienced the playoff atmosphere. They're going to be able to help some of the younger guys who haven't.''
Paced by quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons were sixth in the NFL in passing (281.8 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (26.2 points). Ryan tied Peyton Manning with a league-best 68.6 completion percentage and recorded career highs of 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Ryan's teammates are confident he'll be that same quarterback and not the one who averaged 194.7 yards, threw three TDs, four picks and was sacked 10 times while posting a 71.2 rating and 0-3 playoff record.
White feels Ryan, who threw four TDs and one INT while winning at Seattle in 2010 and 2011, has "been mentally prepared throughout the whole season for this stretch run."
"He knows we have to win a playoff game," White added. "Everybody knows that, and not to put any pressure on him, but I just think that at this point in the season, everybody knows they have to play their best football right now.''
White and Jones combined for 171 catches with 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns while Gonzalez is coming off the most productive of his four regular seasons in Atlanta with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight TDs.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Atlanta tied for fifth in the league with Seattle and Washington with 31 takeaways.
Despite his team's recent playoff history, Smith does not plan to change much.
"To me it's no different than any other game,'' he said. "It's 100 percent on our football team to go out and play our best. We feel like we accomplished what we needed to accomplish to get here and we are looking forward to playing against Seattle.''
Though Atlanta has won three straight against the Seahawks (12-5), the visitors are filled with confidence heading into the teams' first postseason meeting.
After winning its final five regular-season contests, Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to snap an eight-game road playoff skid with a 24-14 victory at Washington last Sunday. The Seahawks are in the midst of their longest winning stretch since an 11-game run Oct. 9-Dec. 24, 2005.
"We haven't been as solid as we are now,'' coach Pete Carroll said. "We're much more solid in our thinking and mentality and just the resolve about everything we're doing.''
Though the Seahawks will be without sack leader Chris Clemons (torn ACL), it was a group effort that helped them allow 15.3 points per contest, the fewest in the league. Their stout defense, which features big cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, against Atlanta's potent passing attack figures to be the game's most intriguing matchup.
"I might be in the minority, but I look at it as strength on strength,'' Koetter said. "Heck, let's go. They've got a good defense, and we have a good offense. I know their team is running hot right now, and I know our guys are looking forward to the challenge.''
While the Seahawks try to join the 1989 Los Angeles Rams as the only West Coast teams to win back-to-back playoff games on the East Coast, the Falcons don't think travel will make their opponent any less formidable.
"It's not like they're going to be going to the moon or anything,'' tackle Tyson Clabo said. "They have a schedule they follow when they travel and I'm sure they're going to keep it the same.''
Seattle started 1-5 on the road before outscoring Chicago, Buffalo and the Redskins 97-48 to win the last three away from home. Paced by Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have averaged 223.3 rushing yards in those contests.
Lynch, who tied a franchise playoff record with 132 yards on 20 carries at Washington, has averaged 116.8 and 6.9 per carry while topping 100 yards in each of the last five contests.
Wilson threw for 187 yards with a TD and rushed eight times for 67 last week. The Falcons know they are in for a challenge trying to stop Wilson, who passed for 3,118 yards and ran for 489 while posting a 100.0 passer rating - fourth in the NFL - during the regular season.
Wilson threw 17 TDs and just two INTs over his final nine games, and his 116.9 passer rating since November is the league's best.
"You have to keep covering guys for a long time on the back end,'' said Nolan, whose defense ranked 21st in rushing at 123.2 yards per game. "That's one of the tougher things about him because when he's running around, you'd better stay with your man.''
Clemons, meanwhile, wasn't the only Seahawk to suffer a season-ending injury against the Redskins. Seattle on Wednesday signed veteran kicker Ryan Longwell after placing Steven Hauschka on injured reserve with a calf injury.
Hauschka made all 23 attempts from inside 50 yards this season. Longwell, who last kicked with Minnesota in 2011, is 17 of 23 on field-goal attempts in the playoffs throughout his 15-year career.
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