What it means: For the second time in three seasons, the Falcons went 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC but couldn’t parlay home-field advantage into a trip to the Super Bowl. At least the Falcons won a playoff game (they defeated Seattle in the divisional round) for the first time in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. But this team had visions of much more than one playoff win, so the ending is disappointing. Smith is not on any hot seat because of his huge regular-season success, but he and the Falcons will enter the 2013 season under enormous pressure to win it all. This team is loaded with talent, and fans and owner Arthur Blank are running out of patience.
Opportunity lost: This one is going to be particularly painful for the Falcons. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead and looked like they were going to blow the 49ers out of the Georgia Dome. But just like last week against Seattle, the Falcons let the 49ers get back in the game. The Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. But there were no miracles from Ryan this time, as he had a fourth-down pass batted down deep in San Francisco territory with less than two minutes remaining.
Opportunity lost II: Atlanta receiver Julio Jones played the game of his life. He caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. But the loss put a big damper on all that.
What’s next: The Falcons will head into an offseason that will involve some key personnel decisions. Cornerback Brent Grimes, left tackle Sam Baker and William Moore highlight the class of potential free agents. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has hinted strongly at retirement, and aging running back Michael Turner could become a salary-cap casualty. This team still has a good nucleus in place, but the loss showed that flaws remain. Smith and Thomas Dimitroff will have to spend the offseason tweaking the roster to try to get the Falcons ready to take the next step.