Because the Falcons are the 11-1 team that nobody seems to believe in, it feels like we’re all laying out a road map of the things they have to do before they deserve to be taken seriously. Never mind that the Falcons were 43-21 during Matt Ryan’s professional career before this season began, which is the fifth-best record for any team over that four-year stretch. The Falcons need to beat a great team, even though they comfortably handled a Broncos team in Week 2 that we all didn’t realize was quite that good. They need to win on the road, even though they blew out the Chargers by 24 in San Diego when the Ravens needed a miracle and overtime to win there by three. They needed to beat these Saints last night, in what was probably the only time an announcer declared a home game versus a 5-6 team to be a “must-win” for a 10-1 squad.1
And now, of course, the next step in our road map for the Falcons is to win a playoff game with Ryan at the helm. Since Atlanta already has a playoff spot virtually sealed up, Ryan and the Falcons are going to spend the next four weeks deflecting that same question about their legitimacy in interview after interview, something Ryan already had to do during the postgame show last night. That criticism conflates the words “haven’t” and “can’t.” It suggests that there’s something lacking about Ryan’s abilities or even Atlanta’s character. That both Ryan and his team truly can’t be taken seriously — that they don’t deserve to be taken seriously — until they beat somebody in January. I don’t know that the Falcons will win the Super Bowl or even that lone playoff game this year, but impugning Ryan and his team on some sort of illegitimate-until-they-win argument is lazy. There is no next hurdle for the Falcons to cross because that’s a narrative trick, not a genuine way that people win or lose football games. All it takes to realize that is a little bit of historical perspective.
Let’s look a little closer at the Falcons’ 0-3 postseason record with Ryan. The three losses were all in games where the Falcons were competitive through the first half, even if the game did eventually get away from them in the second. In the 2008 playoffs, they led Arizona 17-14 on the road at halftime before losing the lead on an Antrel Rolle fumble return for a touchdown, eventually losing 30-24. Two years later, they were down 21-14 to the Packers with 14 seconds left in the first half and the ball on the Green Bay 26-yard line, but Ryan took a sack and threw a pick-six to Tramon Williams that marked the final play of the half; Green Bay promptly scored on the opening drive of the second half, turning what could have been a 21-21 game into a 35-14 blowout that eventually finished 48-21. And last year, Atlanta was down 7-2 at halftime and then 10-2 in the third quarter before Ryan was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 sneak and Hakeem Nicks caught a 72-yard touchdown pass. That one finished 24-2 and is often portrayed not a year later as some sort of start-to-finish blowout that the Falcons were never in.
You’ll note something about those three teams that beat the Falcons: They all did pretty well in the playoffs. The Packers and Giants won the Super Bowl those years, and the Cardinals made it to the big game before suffering a narrow defeat at the hands of the Steelers. When you hear talk about those teams, both now and at the time of their respective runs, it’s always how they were teams of destiny who got really hot when they needed to. When we look at it from the Falcons’ perspective it’s never that they were beaten by three teams who were really hot; it’s that the Falcons are an inferior team who can’t handle playoff pressure. It seems contradictory to have it both ways.
There was a young quarterback of whom the same pithy things were said not all that long ago. Like Ryan, he had a reputation going back through college as a highly regarded leader, even if his team didn’t win the national championship. Like Ryan, he started his playoff career with three consecutive losses. Like Ryan, the third in that string of losses was an embarrassing defeat at the hands of a team from New York in a game where his offense failed to put up any points. Peyton Manning’s Colts lost 41-0 to the Jets that day, with Manning going 14-of-31 for 137 yards with two picks in a game where his team was “befuddled” and Manning himself was “fed his own audibles for dinner.”
From that point forward, while there was no discernible difference in Manning’s level of play during the regular season (short a drop in his interception rate), Manning started winning in the playoffs. The following year, Manning won two playoff games, dropping 79 points across victories over the Broncos (at home) and the Chiefs (in Arrowhead) before losing to the Patriots in his famously bad four-interception game. Of course, then the bar for Manning changed from “win a playoff game” to “beat the Patriots,” without any acknowledgment that he’d conquered that previous arbitrary definition of what he needed to do to prove himself as a legitimate star. Since that 0-3 start, Manning’s gone 9-7 in the playoffs, including two trips to the Super Bowl and one victory there. And if Manning’s postseason record isn’t enough for you, consider that Michael Jordan started his professional career by losing each of his first three playoff series with the Bulls.
A lot of why these definitions crop up has to do with the meaning we place in first impressions and the level of difficulty there is in overcoming those notions. In May, I wrote about LeBron James after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals and how his incredible performance in that game was only going to be remembered if the Heat won the championship, which ended up happening. By that point, we had already decided as a sports culture that LeBron couldn’t win the big one, and until he did, the deck was rigged against him. It wasn’t that James merely had to pull off one impressive postseason performance; he had to pull off an entire postseason and win in the process to get that scarlet letter off his back. If LeBron had been awful in Game 6 and the Heat had lost, he would have been derided for playing so poorly in an elimination game when his team needed him the most. By playing well, all he did was push the question of his clutchness off further to Game 7, and then, to the Finals matchup against the Thunder. Despite the fact that any player of any caliber in the playoffs is far more likely to come up short of a title than to win it in a given year, guys who we already regarded as unclutch like James and Manning would need to prove themselves over and over again without slipping up even once in a playoff run. Once the tide is turned against you, it’s almost impossible to overcome.
The opposite of that is true, too; once we’ve defined a player to possess something special in terms of his ability to win in the playoffs, he can do virtually nothing to erase those claims. The thought experiment I always pose in arguing that one is simple: Take Tom Brady’s playoff career and flip it, so that he begins his career with the 2011 season and ends it with the 2001 campaign. Brady’s a totally different player with a totally different career story line. He’s the guy who can’t win the big game, the quarterback who has the Giants stuck in his head from the start. He loses to them in the 2011 regular season and then in the Super Bowl when Manning finds Manningham. Given a second crack a few years later, he finally beats them in Week 17 to extend New England’s perfect season, but the Giants come up in the clutch in the Super Bowl in a way that Brady just can’t match, as the “greatest offense in league history” implodes and scores just 14 points in an embarrassing loss. You can feel the invective spewing through the Boston papers as Brady gets blown out by the Ravens in 2009 and is trampled by the Broncos in Denver in 2005. Finally, he gets his ring after seven disappointing playoff runs at the helm, but only by blowing a playoff lead to Jake Delhomme before getting bailed out when the opposing kicker boots the final kickoff of the game out of bounds. Brady goes on a nine-game playoff winning streak and shakes his playoff blues. In the real world, Brady’s playoff career is pretty similar to Derek Jeter’s, a guy who repeatedly won at the beginning of his career before a long stretch of mostly coming up just short. Flip it, and he’s more like Jordan, a guy who had the playoff choker label slapped on him before making the whole thing look silly. Winning in the playoffs matters, but a win in the 10th year of a guy’s career means just as much as one in his second year.
Once you get past the idea that there’s something specifically troublesome about Ryan losing his first three playoff games as opposed to three randomly consecutive playoff games, it looks a lot less meaningful in terms of defining his skills. In addition to Peyton Manning,2 plenty of legendary NFL quarterbacks have lost three consecutive playoff games during their careers. Marino. Elway. Brady. Aikman. Even Joe Montana did it: After he won the Super Bowl in 1984, Montana lost each opening playoff game in 1985, 1986, and 1987, only to promptly go 6-0 and win consecutive Super Bowls immediately thereafter. Did Montana forget how to win in the playoffs and suddenly remember? Of course not.
There’s no guarantees that Ryan will experience a turnaround in his playoff performance similar to that of Montana or Michael Jordan, of course, but there’s also no evidence that his three playoff losses say very much about his likelihood of winning playoff games in the future. If your argument against Atlanta’s playoff chances revolves around the idea that the Falcons are limited without a healthy Julio Jones and haven’t delivered many big wins during the regular season this year, you have a fair point. If you truly believe that the Falcons aren’t a legitimate contender because they haven’t won a playoff game with their current core, though, you’re convincing yourself that three losses against very good teams means more than Ryan’s excellent body of work over 74 regular-season games. History tells us that’s foolish. There’s no reason to wait until an Atlanta playoff win to believe that they can compete in this year’s playoffs. It has long been time to take Matt Ryan and the Falcons seriously.