As the 2012 NFL playoffs began, it would’ve been easier to get someone to admit they weren’t confident in Colin Kaepernick’s future as an NFL quarterback than to convince them the Atlanta Falcons were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, even as they began the tournament as the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Even though that team sported an extremely efficient offense, started the season 8-0 and finished it 13-3, the 2012 Falcons weren’t getting any respect. Their schedule was a joke. Their defense wasn’t up to par. Their quick starts often led to second-half breakdowns. Eventually, those critics were proven right when Atlanta came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.
Go back even further to 2010. That year, the Falcons were also 13-3 and the NFC’s No. 1 seed, and they were bounced by the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the postseason. They were quickly exposed as overrated frauds and, despite winning nine of their last 10 regular-season games, were trounced 48-21 at the Georgia Dome by the eventual Super Bowl champions.
But this year is different. Atlanta is 11-5 and the No. 2 seed this time around, but aside from those obvious differences, there’s one that’s a lot more subtle. Nobody’s talking trash about this Falcons team. If there’s a talking head that doesn’t believe Atlanta could actually play in the Super Bowl this year, I’ve yet to hear him or her speak up.
Perhaps one reason why the Falcons are getting respect this year is because they’ve earned it. Their schedule featured one wrecking ball after another, and they survived it. The roster was plagued with key injuries, and they rose above it. Matt Ryan entered the season with doubts hanging over his head, and all he did was turn in an MVP-caliber season that made guys like Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson and Justin Hardy into household names.
Y’all, this team is good. And there isn’t a team out there that wants to come to Atlanta to face them.
Sure, there’s still the fear that there’s an “Atlanta sports moment” waiting down the line. But if the Falcons were to exit this year’s postseason early, perhaps the biggest letdown is that we’d be robbed of watching this team play more games. They’ve been the most entertaining Falcons team since Michael Vick entered prison, and the rest of the league seems to have noticed that.
Atlanta earned a first-round bye with Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints, and they’ll use that time off to their advantage. While many teams worry about the week off making them rusty, the Falcons embraced the bye week, knowing they’ll probably get back several key players for the Divisional Round, barring any additional setbacks.
Their opponent is unknown, though it’s guaranteed to be the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants or Green Bay Packers. Of that trio, there isn’t an opponent the Falcons should be afraid of, even if it would be nice to avoid the Packers, who, along with the Falcons, are among the hottest teams in the league. As the playoffs begin, Atlanta is a serious Super Bowl contender, and for once, the outside world seems to agree.Follow @Sean_Breslin