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NFL Playoffs, Packers Vs. Falcons: What, We Worry?

Suddenly the Falcons sure don’t feel like favorites, and a fan base sits scared.

ATLANTA GA - DECEMBER 27:  An Atlanta Falcons fan watches warm-ups prior to the start of the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on December 27 2010 in Atlanta Georgia.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
ATLANTA GA - DECEMBER 27: An Atlanta Falcons fan watches warm-ups prior to the start of the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on December 27 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Man, are you guys pumped? I am pumped. I am ready. I am like, set for this game. I wore a Matt Ryan throwback jersey to work yesterday! You like that? Yeah, it's pretty epic. I'll go epic chest bump on somebody at the bar tonight, you watch. First guy who yells out "MATTY ICE!" and claims even the most remote connection to the state of Georgia, we're slammin' hair tits in mid-air, like a "Rocketeer" sequel starring Trooper Taylor. Believe that.

Number one seed in the NFC, man. Epic. This is so epic, guys! This is so epic it rescues the word "epic" from its terminal infection of overuse in frat boy affirmations.

EPIC! Matty Ice! EPIC! 13-3 with home field! EPIC! Unquestioned confidence of a NFL fan base in January! EPIC! (Am I doing this right?!) EPIC! (No idea, so let's just keep screaming) EPIC!

EPIC!

We're all terrified right now. Compared to fan bases supporting the other seven franchises still alive in the playoffs, a week of media punditry has Falcons fans reduced to an insecure rubble of doubt.

Why? A mere seven day ago, the sudden scrambling needed to justify a 13-3 team with a 20-2 home record under their current QB beating any wildcard team would seem ludicrous.

Entering these playoffs on a bye last week, Falcons fans seemed to universally agree that the archrival, defending-world champion Saints were certainly worth fretting over if they came to the Dome this weekend. Even more reservation was held out for a possible NFC Championship hosting Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles that would create a Favre-sized white dwarf of off-the-field headlines.

That's why we were walking on air Saturday night after the Seahawks' improbable upset. I probably could have walked on air after that debacle, sitting at a New Orleans Saints viewing party here in Nashville with the emotionless visage and snide, soft-spoken remarks of the most grizzled press box veteran:

Marshawn Lynch Dougies past 13 black and gold Tecmo Bowl defenders.

Me: "Ah, that's tough to take. Fundamentals, guys. You can never tackle too well, you know."

Inside my jubilation floated in a wave pool of sports heroin, as every petty reservation I'd ever held against the Saints blossomed like a spring rose. It wasn't the cautiously-hoped-for revenge game, but for a man with a wife, countless best friends and an adopted home state (Mississippi) all dedicated to WhoDat Nation, it was still sunbeams humping unicorns.

Now Atlanta's woes would be cut in half and their first home NFC title game in franchise history would be all but guaranteed when Philly took care of the darkhorse Packers at home and sent Seattle our way. Pete Carroll and a rookie team on the road? My official analysis: Pffshaw.

Alas, the recurring burning sensation of Michael Vick, NFL quarterback. (Because I'm a man of tact, this space is reserved for your own analogy to STDs contracted by former quarterbacks that, if not treated with regular care, cause burning. I know the line of good taste, thank you.) In a single play, Atlanta's dream state collapsed, and our collective confidence has been steadily ground down by the boot of national punditry.

Now, not having a tremendous amount of experience blogging outside of the collegiate realm, allow me to follow the tracks set by those before me, and blame that asshole Peter King.

Here's what I know about Peter King: You can usually blame him for purporting to be an objective journalist working for arguably the most prestigious sports publication in our nation's history who ends up hawking worthless asides about a small group of his personal favorite players, coaches, teams and GMs. There are entire web sites dedicated to this single observation, and they are among the gold bricks that built the sports blogging palace.

For most of the season, King has shortchanged the Falcons in big games in his weekly predictions column. Atlanta played seven games against playoff teams in the regular season and King was unnoticeably 3-4 in correctly predicting the outcomes (the first five times he picked us to lose). But if you throw out Seattle (because yeah, they're a playoff team) and a split series with divisional rival New Orleans, you're left with Green Bay, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, four teams that have enjoyed the adoration of the media all season long.

All four were popular picks to win it all, and King picked the Falcons to lose all four. Atlanta went 2-2 in those "measuring stick games," but they're better than .500 would indicate: Their opening-season loss at Pittsburgh came on one broken play in overtime and they beat the Ravens and Packers, two of the league's hottest teams, at home in the Georgia Dome.

No matter. Like most national NFL writers, Peter King has no interest in the Falcons and zero expectations for them in January. They're outside of the NFC and AFC East (oh, I'm going northeastern bias on you - it's a Southern man's duty) and have operated with virtually zero noise in the machine since Vick was sent to prison. Also, they're relative newcomers to January. NFL writers are a notoriously cautious breed when prognosticating, and Atlanta offers none of the familiarity of a Green Bay.

The comparisons to other "quiet" one-and-done top seeds have been rampant this week: The 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs in 2003, 11-5 San Diego in 2007, and most recently 12-4 Carolina and 13-3 Tennessee in 2008.

While those Chiefs and Chargers teams bear little resemblance to these Falcons, the Panthers and Titans certainly do: run-first offenses specializing in ball control and reliant on their defenses to come up with a big play late.

And much like the fans of those teams, we don't know how to act. This is rarified air in Atlanta - just a year removed from breaking a 42-year streak of being unable to string two winning seasons together. Do we laugh at the media's scorn? Do we somehow relish being an underdog while still holding the conference's best record?

I have no idea what to expect in tonight's game, which is somewhat common, but absolutely no idea how to conduct myself, which is a rarity. Our growing insecurity this week was certainly watered by the words of countless football scribes, but its rooted in our relative inexperience as a "premiere NFL franchise," which, even if we win the Super Bowl this year, we still couldn't be considered to be.

This is Atlanta. We want to be good at this. We're really good at football fandom, but we're a little clumsy at this brand of it. Should I go with a replica jersey? I see other NFL fans do it. I went with a jersey, a replica Matt Ryan jersey, something considered to be a cardinal sin of gameday fashion among fans in the SEC.

I'm certain that wearing a jersey to work on Friday was an unqualified success. My superiors won't maintain eye contact with me. I should have done this years ago - there's something wonderfully self-destructive when you watch a coworker lose all respect for you in a matter of moments as they try and remember if Atlanta has a football team, if that team is doing something of note, or if my entire ensemble was conceived as a fashion choice.

One man, a janitor, raised a fist as I exited my office and screamed "TOO LEGIT!"

Epic! EPIC! We've got a history in this league, no matter how laughable and interwoven with embarrassing moments in pop music! We belong! We're gonna be fine.

Epic.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.