In their first home playoff game since 2005, the Falcons fell down during the second quarter Saturday night and could never rise up off the turf. Their partisans began to flee the Georgia Dome halfway through the third quarter, as if they had encountered .
After a , who progressed to the N.F.C. championship game next Sunday against the , “rise up” gave way in the losing locker room to variations of “we will learn from this.”
“You get all those wins to get into this position,” Falcons running back Michael Turner said of a 13-3 regular season that led to a top seed in the playoffs. “To not be able to take advantage of having home field is shocking right now.”
The lesson learned?
“The main thing is that nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “Just because you have home field doesn’t mean you can just walk through the playoffs. It’s a totally different season once the playoffs start.”
On Sunday, between exit interviews with players, that the Falcons must figure out how to convert the good works of September to December into better works in what he termed “the second season.”
“Ultimately, when your expectations are raised, you’re not necessarily talking about just the regular season,” Smith said. “You start talking about the second season, and that’s something that we’ve earned.
He added: “We’re going to have to be able to deal with it because we plan on being in this situation again very shortly.”
Owing to their middling rankings in a few of the league’s principal statistical categories, the Falcons’ shiny record was assessed in some corners as deceptive. Their offense does not produce big plays on cue, and their defense is one year removed from being overhauled.
Still, there were numerically validated areas of strength, many of which the Falcons betrayed Saturday.
¶Penalized the least of all teams, they were flagged a season-high seven times.
¶Third in fewest sacks allowed, they allowed five, also a season high.
¶Fourth in turnover differential, they committed four while forcing only one.
¶Eighth in time of possession, they held the ball barely a third of the game (21 minutes 41 seconds).
The ’ scoring drives were so long — four covered at least 80 yards — that the Atlanta offense could have napped on the bench. The only punting by Green Bay’s Tim Masthay was into the practice netting on the sideline.
The Falcons’ defense did not display the togetherness illustrated last Monday, when Kroy Biermann rescued his fellow defensive end after Abraham’s vehicle spun off an icy interstate highway on the way to practice. Abraham was unhurt.
“There were a number of opportunities, especially on third down, where we had opportunities to make plays and we didn’t get them done,” said Smith, who counted four potential sacks that were not finished off.
Atlanta’s offense, with five Pro Bowl selections and an alternate, gave voters reason to re-examine their ballots, especially the ones listing Matt Ryan instead of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Ryan, in his third year, is one of the ’s best young quarterbacks. His status is reflected with appearances in freshly released .
But Rodgers was the sharpest passer Saturday, with a performance that Smith said measured up to only one other in his memory — by .
The Falcons are not big spenders in free agency; their team salary of $121.3 million was the lowest among the N.F.L.’s final eight, and they are disinclined to bring in high-priced players before next season.
In fact, they will lose one if tight end Tony Gonzalez retires. Few felt the pain of Saturday’s defeat more than Gonzalez, a 14-year veteran. He has prompted the announcer’s call of “complete to Gonzalez” more than any other tight end in league history, but his career remains incomplete without a playoff victory.
“It’s tough, real tough,” said Gonzalez, who said he would evaluate his future in the coming weeks. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
The sting from the franchise’s most crushing postseason loss yet — with only 16 playoff games, the sample is small — could trigger cries from the Falcons faithful for a makeover. While the “rise up” slogan may fade away, Smith favors no major alterations.
“The perception in this league is that you’re only as good as your last game; it’s really not reality,” he said. “The sky is not falling. I can assure you of that. We played a very poor football game. I don’t think you want to overreact.”