NFL playoffs show quick rebuild possible for Falcons

Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) jogs off of the field after their loss against the New Orleans Saints 30-20 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Jan. 9, 2022 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) jogs off of the field after their loss against the New Orleans Saints 30-20 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

The Falcons are home for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. It only feels longer. Hope of better times soon is found in the divisional playoff round. Most of the eight teams playing this weekend were bad not long ago.

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Only the Chiefs and Rams are on long postseason streaks. The Bengals and 49ers missed the playoffs last season. The same goes for five of six losers in last weekend’s wild-card round. The expanded playoffs made it even harder to stay bad in the NFL.

The NFL’s system is designed for that outcome. Most of the teams have roughly equal talent. Bad teams can quickly become good. Change coaches, add talent and catch breaks. Fans see it happening elsewhere and expect the same for their team.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot inherited a thin roster and untidy salary cap. They still said they were aiming for the playoffs. Why wouldn’t they? Smith and Fontenot want their employees to believe it. The customers want to hear it.

The playoffs didn’t happen for the Falcons. Smith cites his team’s 7-2 record in one-score games as evidence of that the Falcons are creating a culture of winning. Maybe that’s the case. But one-score records tends to be random from year to year. The lopsided losses to good opponents stand out more.

Still, the Falcons had a decent shot to make the playoffs late in the season. This year’s playoff field shows that getting back there can happen fast.

Only three of the eight teams left in the playoffs did it the old-fashioned way: draft a quarterback who becomes the cornerstone. The Chiefs did it with Patrick Mahomes (they were good before with Alex Smith). The Packers did it with Aaron Rodgers. They still missed the playoffs the next two years after the Falcons eliminated them in the 2016 season.

The Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 in the 2020 draft. They ended a six-year playoff drought this season. The Falcons had a chance to take a similar route in the past draft. They passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the No. 4 pick.

The Falcons stuck with Matt Ryan. He doesn’t play at an MVP-level anymore. I’d still take him over three of the quarterbacks still playing: Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers), Matthew Stafford (Rams) and Ryan Tannehill (Titans). Every team would take Rodgers, Mahomes, Tom Brady (Buccaneers) and Josh Allen (Bills).

Ryan’s production didn’t match his performance this season. That’s largely because of poor pass protection and a lack of playmakers. Fix those issues, and it’s plausible the Falcons could return to the playoffs next season.

The turnaround plan started with Smith and Fontenot. Picking the right coach helped the Rams end a 12-year playoff drought.

The Rams were 4-12 the season before hiring coach Sean McVay in January 2017. They played a wild-card game at home in his first season, losing to Quinn’s Falcons. The Rams lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots in the 2018 season. They missed the playoffs the next season before making it the past two.

Smith came to the Falcons with a background like McVay’s. Both coaches had received acclaim as play-callers before becoming head coaches. McVay was on Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington early in his career. Smith worked in Tennessee with Matt LaFleur, now Green Bay’s head coach. LaFleur was Ryan’s quarterback coach during his MVP season and served as McVay’s coordinator for one year.

Until this season, McVay’s quarterback was Jared Goff. Goff has never been as good as Ryan. The Rams had to surrender two first-round picks to coax the Lions to trade Stafford for Goff. If the Rams won with Goff then the Falcons can do it with Ryan.

The Lions haven’t won a playoff game in the salary-cap era. That’s hard to do. The NFL’s safety nets are designed to prevent it. The worst teams get the highest picks. The best teams are forced to cut loose free agents. Mediocre teams can make runs with good luck.

Some teams still manage to fail. The Bucs ended their 12-year playoff by signing Brady and winning the Super Bowl. The Rams play at Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Bucs are favored by a field goal.

McVay’s Rams can give us a two-for-one. Stop Brady and inspire hope that the Falcons soon will be winning games like that again.