FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Even though none of the Atlanta Falcons would publicly acknowledge the heightened pressure to win leading up to Sunday’s playoff clash with the Seahawks, make no mistake, the anxiety was real.
Alas, having finally earned that first playoff triumph of the Mike Smith era — a miraculous 30-28 victory over the Seahawks — the Falcons seemingly could breathe in a collective sigh of relief.
Does it stand to reason Atlanta can now play looser in Sunday’s NFC championship against San Francisco, the first home title game in the Falcons’ 46-year history? Do they stand to benefit from the change in atmosphere?
“I think so,” safety Thomas DeCoud said after the Seattle win. “A little bit looser. Like you said, we have that proverbial monkey off our back. Now, we can, you know, really calm down, hit our stride and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we did in this game. That’s just one more thing off of our plate.
“Now, we got to just correct what we did wrong and skyrocket from there,” said DeCoud.
Against the Seahawks, the Falcons defense allowed 300 yards in the second half and struggled to stop Seattle from erasing a 27-7 deficit with three fourth-quarter touchdowns (taking a 28-27 lead). Only a last-minute scoring drive — capped by Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal in the final seconds — kept the Falcons alive in the NFC playoffs.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon echoed DeCoud’s comments, to some degree. But rather than citing the “relief” angle, Weatherspoon preferred to say Sunday’s victory would breed confidence for the NFC title game.
“We’ll be ready to play,” Weatherspoon said. “People want to talk about playing loose. Playing with confidence — that’s what I like to talk about. We’re some confident guys. We have some things we obviously have to fix, (from) the second half.”
Coach Smith has invoked a different approach from Sunday’s victory.
“I don’t think that we’ll be able to play looser,” Smith said. “I think we’ve got to get back into our preparation mode. I know many people have talked about the outcome of that ballgame and what does it mean to the Atlanta Falcons? It means we get to play again, and in the playoffs you want to keep playing … I think our guys understand the challenge again this week (will) be big.
“This San Francisco team won a big ballgame on Saturday night against a team that’s got a Super Bowl trophy (Green Bay, two seasons ago). I’ve been very impressed on both sides of the ball.”
On Monday, Smith revealed, perhaps unwittingly, that he had difficulty putting the Seattle game to rest. In his coach-speak, one might replace the word “fun” with “stressful.”
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said. “No, not celebrating. For everybody involved, that was a fun football game, and it’s hard to unwind from fun football games. I think for everybody, at least here in Atlanta, it most certainly was. And then I got going on San Francisco. In fact, so much that (when) I talked about (the 49ers) before, I thought we played them yesterday.”
Smith’s late-night uneasiness may have been a combination of adrenaline rush and the prospect of defending 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Against the Packers on Saturday, Kaepernick set the NFL single-game record (regular season or playoffs) for rushing yards by a quarterback (181). He also ran for two touchdowns.
To Falcons fans, those numbers are reminiscent of what Carolina quarterback Cam Newton accomplished against Atlanta twice this season. Newton rushed for 86 yards in the first game (301 total yards, three TDs) and 116 in the rematch — highlighted by a 72-yard rushing touchdown in the Panthers’ 30-20 victory.
At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Newton matches up physically with Kaepernick (6-4, 230). Both Carolina and San Francisco run the read option, allowing for both quarterbacks to be dangerous rushers.
DeCoud said he was “glued” to watching the 49ers’ 45-31 playoff victory over Green Bay.
“He was on fire with that read option,” DeCoud said of Kaepernick, “and he also can throw the ball. So, he’s a dynamic quarterback and we definitely need to have our ‘T’s crossed and ‘I’s dotted next week.”
The Seahawks also ran the read option against the Falcons, but Seattle’s Russell Wilson (at 5-11) is markedly smaller than Kaepernick and rarely kept the ball during read-option plays, preferring to hand it off. On disrupted pass attempts, Wilson often used his feet to stay in the pocket and make throws downfield.
With only seven career starts, Kaepernick appears to be the greater rushing threat.
“You’ve got to have vision on defense,” Smith said. “And you can’t match up and play match coverages or man-to-man because when (Kaepernick) gets into the secondary. He’s a guy who can go the distance. He outran a number of fast players in the ballgame on Saturday.”
Maybe playing more loosely will help the Falcons in their effort to contain Kaepernick.