It is a compliment and a curse, and the cross the Atlanta Falcons bear.
"There's nothing they can do from September to December that we even really paid much attention to," Hall of Fame quarterback and ESPN analyst Steve Young said this week. "Go undefeated, and we are like, 'Oh, that's just great, but we want to see you in January.'"
No team this weekend is under more pressure than the Falcons. No team has more at stake. Atlanta has to beat Seattle on Sunday. Losing is not an option. The Falcons must change the narrative. They must validate their regular-season success -- and boy, there has been regular-season success -- by winning in January, or owner Arthur Blank might do more than just yell.
And that would be a shame.
In 2008, Blank hired Mike Smith to clean up the mess Bobby Petrino left when he ditched the Falcons, with three games left in the season, to coach the University of Arkansas. Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have done a phenomenal job building the Falcons, from drafting Matt Ryan third overall to surrounding him with playmakers on offense and defense. No other team in the NFC can boast five consecutive winning seasons, and the Falcons' 56-24 record under Smith is the second best in the NFL since 2008, behind only New England, which is 60-20.
The Falcons are so well regarded as talent evaluators that Dimitroff's last two top lieutenants, Les Snead and David Caldwell, are now the general managers of St. Louis and Jacksonville, respectively.
But. There is a huge but, and everyone in the Falcons organization is aware of it. Atlanta has wilted in the playoffs. In three playoff games -- against the Cardinals four years ago, the Packers two years ago and the Giants last year -- the Falcons regressed from what they had been during the regular season. They lost all three games. The Packers and Giants each went on to win the Super Bowl. Green Bay routed Atlanta 48-21 in a game the Packers blew open at the end of the first half with an interception return for a touchdown. The Giants humbled the Falcons 24-2.
In the three postseason losses, the Falcons averaged 15.7 points per game, gave up an average of 34 points per game and went from being a team with a plus-35 turnover differential to one with a minus-5. Ryan failed to throw for 200 yards in any of those games.
Inside the Falcons' Flowery Branch, Ga., practice facility, all of that is ancient history. One of Smith's mantras is that past success or failure does not dictate future success or failure. He has hammered that message home, week after week, and kept his team focused on the now, not the future or the past.
"We take it for what it's worth," said safety Thomas DeCoud, another Dimitroff draft pick (third round, 2008). "The body of work we put out there this season is our body of work. The past, it really has no bearing with what we do right now, good or bad."
Of the past playoff failures, DeCoud said, "It's not anything we're paying too much attention to," but, he added, "it's in the back of our minds.
"That's the one Achilles' heel for our franchise," DeCoud said.
"Everybody's going to put our best foot forward and get that first playoff W on Sunday."
To prepare for this weekend, Smith changed his approach to the bye week from 2010. That season, Smith spent the bye week having the team practice situational football for the three potential opponents the Falcons would face. He dedicated one day to third-down situations, one day to short yardage and one day to goal line. He also gave the players several days off.
This time, Smith had the Falcons practice Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week. He spent one day each on Minnesota, Seattle and Washington. The practices weren't long, but the idea was to keep the players fresh and sharp.
"We just basically fine-tuned," DeCoud said. "Got an oil change, changed the carburetor, got new gaskets. Everything's tuned up and ready to go for Sunday."
And that goes for the quarterback. Two weeks after last season's playoff loss to the Giants, Ryan started working with Falcons director of athletic performance Jeff Fish to add muscle mass. Ryan's goal was to be physically stronger, so he wouldn't get run down by the rigors of the regular season. He also worked closely with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who encouraged Ryan to suggest route combinations and plays. Koetter gave Ryan, who had worked with Mike Mularkey the previous four seasons, a fresh set of eyes and made Ryan better.
"There's a different kind of swagger about Matt Ryan," DeCoud said. "He really wants to be on point and real professional, not that he wasn't before, but it's even more so now. It's a new attention to detail, a new sense of urgency from Matt.
"I really took hold to it maybe right after the Giants game [in Week 15]. Us being able to put up 34 points and hang a zero on the other side of the ball, it proved to us, if we play consistently, there's nothing that can stop us from playing into February."
That is the goal, but the reality is the Falcons have to take the first step first. They have to beat Seattle. They have to deal with the nerves and the inordinate pressure, both internal and external, and validate their regular-season success.
Steve Young, for one, likes Atlanta's chances.
"This is the moment," he said. "This is the one, so you're going to see a ferocity from them. There's not going to be an inch that they're going to give. This is a big, huge, big deal that cannot be underestimated, and I think you'll see the effects of it with this team.
"They might be overwrought. It might backfire, but I think the odds are you're going to see something that, I don't know how you can describe it, but it's going to be different and it's going to be different than any other playoff team that's at stake."
It wasn't surprising, but it was jarring nonetheless. Junior Seau's brain tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to five brain specialists consulted by the National Institutes of Health, Seau's family told ESPN and ABC News. Like other NFL players before him, Seau suffered brain damage. He committed suicide last May.
The finding helped explain Seau's erratic behavior in the years prior to his death, his family said. It also helped illustrate -- again -- how dangerous playing the game of football at its highest level can be to one's health. Seau was a hard-hitting linebacker for 20 years who was never listed on an injury report with a concussion. He developed CTE and shot himself in the chest two years after retiring.
"Is it worth it?" Seau's 23-year-old son Tyler told ESPN and ABC News. "I'm not sure. But it's not worth it for me to not have a dad. So to me it's not worth it."
Keep that in mind this weekend.
• • •
When I visited with John Harbaugh after Baltimore's 24-9 win over Indianapolis, he was effusive in his praise of his quarterback, and then threw this tidbit in at the end:
"I think Jim Caldwell is doing a great job," Harbaugh said.
Caldwell joined the Ravens this season as the quarterbacks coach to serve as a buffer between Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But after consecutive losses, Harbaugh decided to replace Cameron with Caldwell prior to the Ravens' game against Denver in Week 15.
The results have been noticeable, particularly in the run game. Under Cameron, the Ravens averaged 27.7 rushes, 108.8 rushing yards and 6.0 rushing first downs per game, and 4.2 yards per rush, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Under Caldwell, the Ravens have averaged 35.5 rushes, 164.5 rushing yards and 6.5 rushing first downs per game, and 4.6 yards per rush.
Caldwell has integrated Bernard Pierce into the offense. In the first 14 games of the season, the rookie running back from Temple averaged 5.1 carries per game and had double-digit carries only once. Pierce has averaged 16.3 carries the past three games, including the season finale against Cincinnati, when Ray Rice played only two series. Pierce has twice gained more than 100 yards: against the Giants in Week 16, when he gained 123 and Rice gained 107, and last week against Indianapolis when he gained 103 and Rice gained 68.
No wonder Harbaugh is happy with Caldwell.
• • •
The other Harbaugh, 49ers coach Jim, is rarely effusive, and he stonewalled earlier this week when asked if he had made a decision on who would be his kicker -- incumbent David Akers or challenger Billy Cundiff -- against Green Bay.
"No," Harbaugh said, "not one that we'll have made or announce yet."
Asked if he would not announce his decision until an hour and a half before kickoff, when the inactive lists are announced, Harbaugh said: "That's possible."
As it turned out, Harbaugh announced Thursday that he was sticking with Akers -- for another game, at least.
It would've been a fascinating turn of events if West Coast Harbaugh picked the kicker who cost East Coast Harbaugh an opportunity to force overtime against New England in last year's AFC Championship Game. Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt as time expired with the Ravens trailing the Patriots by three points. Baltimore cut Cundiff last August.
One factor that might have influenced the decision? In 114 career games, including eight in the playoffs, Cundiff has never kicked in Candlestick Park, where the wind can present challenges for kickers. And he missed five of 12 kicks for Washington before the team released him in early October.
• • •
On Thursday, new Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell fired Mike Mularkey, making Mularkey the eighth head coach fired since the end of the regular season. It was not a shock. General managers like to hire their own coaches, and Jaguars owner Shad Khan gave Caldwell the green light to do just that.
The firing underscores the immense pressure on coaches to win right away. Mularkey was in his first season in Jacksonville. He wasn't given time to build his team. Neither was Romeo Crennel in Kansas City.
There are four head-coaching vacancies in addition to Jacksonville: Chicago, Arizona, Philadelphia and San Diego.
It is almost sacrilegious to criticize Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the Packers' past four games, including a playoff win last week against Minnesota. But Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," has watched every pass Rodgers has thrown this season and has seen Rodgers leave plays on the field.
"Rodgers is an intriguing player because he's the best arm talent [in the NFL]," Cosell said. "He's so good making plays outside of structure that he can make enough of those, and he can win. I think most of this season, with few exceptions, he's not been the same rhythmic quarterback he was a year ago. But he's such a great passer, and he doesn't throw interceptions, [so] a lot of people probably think I don't know what I'm talking about."
After watching the film of the Vikings-Packers game, Cosell evaluated Rodgers thusly: "Rodgers is still tentative and indecisive in the pocket. He's not pulling the trigger on throws that are there. He's much more aggressive in the two-minute [offense], much more willing to pull the trigger in the structure of the play. His really outstanding movement ability and arm talent at times compensates for his indecisiveness in the pocket."
Cosell said he would expect Rodgers to play the same way this weekend against San Francisco because "that's been the way he's played the majority of the season." San Francisco beat Green Bay 30-22 in Week 1, and it was the only game all season that the 49ers used six defensive backs as their basic sub package, Cosell said.
STATS & INFO
The brooms were out again Wednesday at New England's practice as the Patriots prepared to face 2012 sack leader J.J. Watt, who finished the regular season with 20.5 sacks and had one in a wild-card win over Cincinnati last weekend.
Houston was the most aggressive defense in football during the regular season, sending an extra pass-rusher on 47 percent of drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In New England's 42-14 win over the Texans in Week 14, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 13 of 19 passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns against Houston's pressure. During the regular season, Brady threw 20 touchdowns against five or more pass-rushers and went 150 attempts without an interception, both best in a season since the beginning of 2008. No team allowed more touchdowns when sending five-plus rushers than the Texans this season (19).
As for Watt, he led the league in sacks, batted passes (16) and tackles for loss (24.5) during the regular season, but New England held him without a disruptive stat in Week 14.
"Obviously I didn't play well enough," Watt said this week. "I mean, I got quite a few hits on Brady, but obviously the ball was gone every time. [I] didn't bat any balls, didn't have any tackles for a loss, so I need to do more. I think that's understood. I think that's known, but that's why you get another shot, and this is the playoffs and I'm going to bring everything that I have."
"When adversity strikes you respond in one of two ways....You step aside and give in..Or you step up and fight."
-- Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) January 7, 2013
If there is a silver lining in this mess about whether Washington coach Mike Shanahan played Griffin too long against Seattle -- he did -- it is that Griffin is as diligent and dedicated an athlete as there is. He will do everything necessary to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right knee and get himself back to his 2012 form.
It's a shame all this is necessary. Shanahan had an obligation to Griffin and to the Redskins to protect his quarterback, from himself and from further damaging an already injured knee. Focused on winning a playoff game, Shanahan ignored that obligation, and now Griffin must recover from an injury that could affect his career and the Redskins' future.
"As @jayglazer reported, Jaguars and Dave Caldwell have agreed to terms on a new contract to make him Jacksonville's new GM."
-- Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 8, 2013
I spoke with Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff last week, and he knew he would be losing Caldwell, who has been on Dimitroff's staff since 2008, this past year as director of player personnel. It wasn't a matter of if Caldwell would get an opportunity to be a general manager, only when. He's a bright, up-and-coming personnel man.
It is the second time in two years that Dimitroff's right-hand man has become a general manager, which speaks highly of Dimitroff, who is in his fifth season as the Falcons' GM.
"Rob Ryan confirms he's fired. "I'll be out of work for like 5 minutes," he said."
-- Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) January 8, 2013
As ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon reported, Rob Ryan doesn't think he will have a hard time finding another job after Dallas fired him as its defensive coordinator. Another gem from MacMahon's interview with Ryan, who was in the Turks and Caicos Islands when coach Jason Garrett called and fired him: "I did a good job. I know it. If anybody thinks I didn't, they're full of [expletive]."
All times Eastern.
Baltimore at Denver, 4:30 p.m. Saturday
If Indianapolis was able to put up 419 yards of offense on the Ravens last Sunday, what might Denver do? The Broncos are a top-five offense and top-five defense playing in frigid conditions in high altitude at home. Broncos 30, Ravens 23.
Green Bay at San Francisco, 8 p.m. Saturday
That 30-22 San Francisco win over Green Bay in Week 1 seems like five years ago. But the 49ers will use anything for an edge. They just better hope the game doesn't come down to a field goal. Packers 20, 49ers 17.
Seattle at Atlanta, 1 p.m. Sunday
It's risky, I know. Seattle is hot the way the Packers and Giants were the past two years when they eliminated the Falcons. But the fourth time must be the charm for Atlanta. Must be. Falcons 24, Seahawks 21.
Houston at New England, 4:30 p.m. Sunday
It has been difficult to get a read on the Texans down the stretch. New England coach Bill Belichick has a decided advantage with an extra week to prepare. Watch him try to hammer Matt Schaub into making mistakes. Patriots 27, Texans 23.