(Reuters) - The Atlanta Falcons earned the top seed in the National Football Conference (NFC) with a 13-3 regular season record but it is a miserable run of form in the playoffs they will try to end against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Three times in the era of head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan the Falcons have impressed in the regular season but have stumbled in their first games of the post-season.
Last year, the Falcons lost to the New York Giants in the wild-card round after having gone out to the Green Bay Packers in the previous year.
In fairness, both those losses came to teams who went on to win the Super Bowl that season while in 2008, the Falcons fell to the Arizona Cardinals who were so close to winning the whole thing that season.
But the inability of a team, which has looked to have quality in every area on both sides of the ball, to perform on the biggest stage has afflicted Ryan in particular.
In his three losses, the Falcons quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes and four interceptions and his best yardage was the 199 he threw for against the Giants last year - well below his career yards per game average of 243.
Ryan says he has learned from his mistakes and that this year he has been trying to keep to the same routine he has used throughout the regular season.
“The biggest thing is to get settled into your routine. Prepare the way that you normally prepare,” he told reporters this week.
“My preparation this year in the regular season has been different than in the last four. I’ll be consistent with that I’ve done this year.”
The Seahawks are the biggest surprise package in the playoffs this year, having enjoyed an 11-5 season in the NFC West and then defeating the much-hyped Washington Redskins last week.
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has inevitably grabbed the headlines but Sunday’s divisional round game could well come down to the match-up between Seattle’s cornerback duo of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner against Atlanta’s impressive receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
“It is going to be a fun match-up,” said Sherman, “They’ve got two of the best receivers in football. It is going to be fun.”
Falcons coach Smith repaid the compliment: “I think it is arguably the best duo at the cornerback position in the NFL this year. They are big, long physical football players,” he said.
With two quarterbacks in fine form, the outcome could well come down to who triumphs in that receiver-corner match-up.
Reporting By Simon Evans, editing by Gene Cherry