- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter
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ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything. There were grown men, namely Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure, breaking into tears.
This is what happens when a team known for its inability to win the big games loses its biggest one yet.
This was the scene after the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
"We played well," Blank, the owner of the Falcons, said to a group of family members and friends as he waited to hear Smith, the coach, address the media. "Almost "
Blank’s voice trailed off to silence, and the normally eloquent man became enveloped by a forlorn expression. After Smith talked to the media, he and Blank exchanged a hug, and then Smith did the same with Dimitroff, the general manager.
But the real tears came in the locker room. That’s where Gonzalez and McClure, the two elder statesmen of the team, lost it.
"You play your whole career " said McClure, the center, who then broke into tears and went silent for about 20 seconds.
"You play your whole career," McClure eventually continued. "To get in this situation, and to come up short is tough."
On the other side of the locker room, Gonzalez, the veteran tight end, was saying basically the same thing and also shedding tears. Some of Gonzalez’s tears might have been because he said he is pretty sure he’s going to retire after a 16-year career. But there also is little doubt he was crying due to the way the Falcons lost the game.
As Gonzalez said he would probably retire, McClure said he wants to play another season. But, after what happened Sunday, I’m getting the feeling Gonzalez and McClure could play another 10 or 20 years and the Falcons still wouldn’t be capable of getting to the Super Bowl -- unless there are some dramatic changes.
The three previous playoff losses during the era of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan were bad, but this one was horrible.
This one showed, just when it looked like the Falcons were going to turn the corner and show the world they really aren’t postseason chokers, that's precisely who they are.
I didn’t hear a single coach or player try to sugarcoat this one, and that’s fitting because there truly was no excuse for this.
The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and employees at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport were probably already stocking up on eggs to greet the team upon its arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.
Instead, the Falcons promptly laid a huge egg. They let the 49ers creep back into the game before halftime. Then, they completely folded in the second half. There were two turnovers, two costly personal fouls and even Ryan, the supposed master of the comeback, couldn’t pull off a late miracle and put the Falcons in the end zone, even though they were just 10 yards away with a little more than a minute left.
"It’s tough when you are  yards away from the Super Bowl," White said in perhaps his only useable quote of the day.
There were plenty of unusable quotes in a locker room in which profanities, spawned by frustration, were abundant.
The Falcons should be furious about this one. It was their best chance yet to get to the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.
Instead, they squandered a 13-3 season and the benefit of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.
For all the good the Falcons did this season (and they did at least get a playoff win against Seattle last week), they’re right back where they were at the start of the season. And the start of the season before that.
Go ahead and fire away with the same old questions and criticisms.
Smith is too nice to win the big ones. Ryan can win in the regular season, but not when it matters most.
It’s all valid. In fact, now the Falcons have firmly earned the right to be questioned and criticized from now until the day they win a Super Bowl -- if they ever do.
Put the blame on the coaches, and put the blame on Ryan. The Falcons scored 24 points in the first half and precisely zero in the second half. Ryan fumbled away a snap out of the shotgun formation and threw an interception. A team that prides itself on not making mistakes made plenty of them. There were the two personal fouls and repeated breakdowns on defense.
Let’s not forget what might have been the biggest issue of all.
"Covering the tight end," Smith said. "The tight end was an issue."
The tight end (Vernon Davis, who finished with five catches for 106 yards) was a huge issue, mainly because the Falcons inexplicably didn’t bother to cover him.
But let's forget the individual breakdowns for now. It’s time to start wondering if there’s a more systemic issue with the Falcons. Is there some inherent flaw with this personnel, with this coaching staff and with the way the Falcons do things?
They had everything: a ton of talent, an incredibly loud home crowd and a big early lead.
Yet the Falcons have squandered yet another postseason opportunity. After all the talk about how -- this time -- this team was really, truly different, it turns out the Falcons are nothing but the same old Falcons.
ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything.