Falcons determined to forge playoff breakthrough

FLOWERY BRANCH — Last year at this time, after going 13-3 and winning the NFC South championship, the top-seeded Falcons kicked back and watched the wild-card round of the playoffs.

This season, there was no time to reflect on the regular-season. The Falcons returned to practice Wednesday to get ready for the NFC wild-card game against the New York Giants at 1 p.m. Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Last season, the Falcons lost 48-21 to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs at the Georgia Dome.

Set to make the franchise’s first back-to-back playoff appearance, the Falcons are determined to have a playoff breakthrough under coach Mike Smith. They also were eliminated in their first game of the playoffs after the 2008 regular season.

The players are taking note of the differences and are considering how they might have misplayed the bye week last season.

“The main thing is that you are still playing,” defensive end John Abraham said. “We had the little week off. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. Last year, it probably slowed us down a little bit.”

The Falcons will enter the playoffs having won eight of their past 11. They were able to bounce back from a bad loss to New Orleans in their 15th game with a 45-24 shellacking of Tampa Bay.

“This year we are rolling and still feeling good,” Abraham said. “We are not really missing practices.”

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the focal point of this playoff mission, in part because of his 0-2 playoff record and in part because of some key turnovers.

He is changing his routine. He’s turning off his television and doesn’t plan to watch any of the pregame hype.

“The biggest thing is to not let all the outside stuff, the extracurricular that goes with the playoffs, the hype, not let that affect the way you prepare and the way you play,” Ryan said. “Once the coin is flipped and the game starts, it’s the same deal. It comes down, as a quarterback, to making good decisions.”

Last season, he watched all of the pregame hype. Soaked in all of the noise about possibly Michael Vick coming back to face the Falcons. How hot the Packers were. So forth and so on.

“Anybody that says they never hear or see that stuff, to a certain degree, is lying,” Ryan said. “But I think at this time of the year, it comes down to really making a conscious effort of, ‘you know what, not paying attention to that’ and not turning it on.”

Neither Smith nor offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey advised Ryan to take this nomadic approach in the digital times that we live in. At least he doesn’t have to worry about his Facebook friends or his Twitter followers. He’s on neither of the popular sites.

“It’s just experience, having learned from those past situations, having been through it,” Ryan said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing. I think it’s us, collectively as a unit, not anybody telling us that, but us collectively as a unit kind of learning from that.”

For Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, last season was not the first time he experienced the playoff blues. Gonzalez twice experienced playoff heartbreak in Kansas City as a heavy favorite, first in 1997 and then in 2003.

With all of his catches, touchdowns and records, Gonzalez never has experienced a win in the playoffs.

“It would mean a lot to me, but at the same time that’s not my goal,” Gonzalez said. “It’s something that we expect. We want to go out there and win some games. Ask me after the Super Bowl. That’s when I would really and truly be excited.

“The goal is not to go out there and win a playoff game, [but] it’s about winning a couple of playoff games and getting to the big dance.”

After the Green Bay game last postseason, some contended that the stage was too big for the Falcons because of their youth. The pundits noted that Ryan was in just his third season and just wasn’t ready to win a big-time playoff game.

“This team definitely should be used to it by now,” said Gonzalez, who signed a one-year extension before the final regular-season game. “We can’t use that excuse that we’re not mature enough to handle this. We are a mature football team. I think we’re going to be good for a while. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come back here and give it one more shot.”