For Falcons, So Much Progress and So Little to Cheer

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.”

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Falcons Short of Postseason Experience

The Falcons have no players who have appeared in a . Starting with the veterans Tony Gonzalez and Mike Peterson, the roster is filled with players starved for playoff success.

Only three — center Todd McClure and receivers Brian Finneran and Michael Jenkins — were with the team for Atlanta’s last playoff win, in 2004.

The Falcons, who have a bye for the wild-card round, are counting on their strong home record and the added experience of quarterback Matt Ryan and other key players who remain from the 2008 team that lost its playoff opener at Arizona.

“I think the playoff experience that we had two years ago will be beneficial for our football team,” said Coach Mike Smith, who was a rookie coach in 2008. He added, “I think it was a learning experience for us all, not only the players but the coaching staff.”

The Falcons (13-3) earned the bye by winning the N.F.C. South with the conference’s best record. They will play on Jan. 15 against the , the or the . The winner advances to the N.F.C. championship game.

Atlanta’s only other division titles came in 1980, 1998 and 2004. The team is the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1980.

The Falcons can advance to the Super Bowl with two wins at the Georgia Dome, where they are 20-2 in games started by Ryan over the last three years.

All that recent home success came in the regular season. The Falcons have not had a home playoff game since beating the in the divisional playoffs after the 2004 season. Atlanta lost at Philadelphia in the N.F.C. title game.

In addition to the three holdovers from the 2004 Falcons roster, the list of Atlanta players who have won in the playoffs is short: running back Michael Turner (while with San Diego), cornerback (Minnesota, Jacksonville), and defensive end and safety Erik Coleman (both with ).

The Falcons’ list of players still seeking their first playoff victory includes two of the team’s most experienced veterans, Gonzalez and Peterson.

This could be the last chance for Gonzalez, who has more catches than any other tight end in history, and Peterson, still a productive linebacker.

Gonzalez, 34, lost in each of his three playoff games with Kansas City. Peterson, 34, was 0 for 4 in the playoffs with Indianapolis and Jacksonville. He missed the Jaguars’ 2007 playoffs with an injury.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Peterson said. He added, “I’m just trying to take advantage of it and soak it all in.”

Gonzalez said he would make sure his younger teammates realize that playoff chances were rare, especially as a No. 1 seed.

“Just because you’re 13-3 doesn’t mean much,” he said. “We still have to take care of business.”

Ryan was only 13 when the Falcons lost to Denver in their only Super Bowl appearance, after the 1998 season. He was a rookie when the host Cardinals beat the Falcons, 30-24.

Ryan is bolstered by the experience gained in his three seasons as he prepares for his second try for a playoff win.

“Completely different,” Ryan said when asked to compare the two postseason opportunities. “At this point, I have a better idea of what to expect heading into it because it is different. There are things going on that are different than in the regular season.”

“The atmosphere is really different,” he added.

Ryan had three turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, and was sacked for a safety in his 2008 playoff debut.

Ryan said he understood it was important to take advantage of the home playoff games.

“The opportunity doesn’t come around that often,” he said. “Trying to make the most of it, I think all of us will have that in the back of our minds.”

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