The rise of the rookie quarterback was the story entering the playoffs and now only the Seahawks' Russell Wilson remains, pitted against a counterpart who seemingly has been seeking post-season validation forever.
Wilson, one of three rookie signal-callers to reach the playoffs, leads the Seahawks into Atlanta where they will face Matt Ryan and the Falcons in a divisional playoff game today at the Georgia Dome. Wilson either will be headed to the NFC championship game or Ryan will find himself a winner in the post-season for the first time since his NFL career began as the third overall draft pick in 2008.
Ryan and the Falcons are positioned as the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the second time in three years. Despite the top spot, the Falcons were humiliated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers 48-21 in the divisional round two years ago. Last year, the Giants thumped them 24-2 in a wild-card game. Ryan and the Falcons lost to the Cardinals in a wild-card at the end of his rookie season.
Owner Arthur Blank obviously wants to see more from the Falcons, as do general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. The Falcons are in a position where they need to deliver. Ryan has won 56 regular-season games since '08, more than any other NFL quarterback. He enters these playoffs coming off a career year with highs in passer rating (99.1), yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and completion percentage (68.6). If he can't deliver now, Ryan is going to carry an enormous collar of being a playoff choker.
"I don't worry about it," Ryan said. "I don't think about it. We've worked really hard during the course of the off-season and through training camp and OTAs to get ourselves an opportunity to be playing at this time of year. We want to play our best football and really that's the only thing I'm worried about. Trying to do whatever we can do to play our best football Sunday."
Ryan says he learned "tons" from his three previous playoff experiences but he's down basically to spitting out cliches about opportunities present and past.
"Each game comes down to four or five different plays and it comes down to who makes those plays," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to make the plays when we need to."
The offence is more dynamic this time around under first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter, who came over from the Jaguars. Roddy White leads the team with 1,351 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. In his second season, Julio Jones has made the blockbuster trade to acquire him seem well worth it for Dimitroff. He has 1,198 yards receiving yards and 10 touchdowns and 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez has 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns in what he says will be his final season. Michael Turner rushed for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Gonzalez never has won a playoff game in his storied career. He lost three with the Chiefs and the last two with the Falcons.
"This is what you work for all season long. ... It wasn't about getting a bunch of wins, but just enough to get to the playoffs," Gonzalez said. "Luckily, we got a bunch of wins in that process."
The Seahawks will be without their top pass rusher Chris Clemons (111/2 sacks) as the defensive end tore his ACL in the team's wild-card round victory Sunday at Washington.
-- Chicago Tribune