The question has become so prevalent that the answer has gotten lost in the shuffle.
There are all sorts of theories floating out there on why Smith, Ryan and the Falcons keep making early exits in January, but I don’t buy them.
I’ve got the answer right here: The Falcons will win a playoff game when they should win a playoff game.
That’s Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in the Georgia Dome.
The logic is simple: It’s the first time in the Smith-Ryan era you can unequivocally say the Falcons should win in the postseason.
Everybody likes to talk about how this Atlanta team is different from previous ones.
“We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences,’’ Smith said this week. “I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs.’’
There’s some truth in saying this team is different, but I don’t think that’s going to be the difference Sunday.
What’s different now compared to the 2008, 2010 and 2011 postseasons -- which all ended in early exits for the Falcons -- is the circumstances. Think about it for a second.
Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go up to MetLife Stadium last January and beat the New York Giants? I sure didn’t. I mean, I thought Atlanta at least had a chance, but I think the realistic expectation was for them to lose by a score of something like 24-17. The Falcons lost 24-2 on a day when their offense forgot to show up, and that only made the two previous playoff losses seem worse than they were.
And we're going to go out of order here, so bear with me, but think about those other two losses for a second.
Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go to Arizona and knock off the Cardinals at the end of the 2008 season, when Ryan was just a rookie? I’m not saying the word “dynasty’’ should ever be used in the same sentence as the Arizona Cardinals, but that Arizona team had Kurt Warner and was playing at home. Just like last year’s Giants, those Cardinals knocked off the Falcons and strolled to the Super Bowl.
Speaking of Super Bowl teams, think for a second about the other team the Falcons have lost to in their last three playoff tries.
Yep, that was the Green Bay Packers back in a 2010 season during which Atlanta went 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But, even then, you couldn’t look at things objectively and say Atlanta was the overwhelming favorite. The Packers had playoff mystique and they also had Aaron Rodgers, and you knew Green Bay had a chance to come into the Georgia Dome and win.
Like last year’s Giants, those Packers thumped the Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl.
But let’s not go comparing the current Seahawks to the 2010 Packers, because they’re not. Yes, Seattle is red-hot after winning its final five games of the regular season and knocking off the Washington Redskins in its playoff opener last week. Yes, the Seahawks have a very good defense and an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch.
But the Seahawks are not the Packers. They’re not the Giants or the Cardinals. They don’t have Rodgers, Eli Manning or Warner.
They have Russell Wilson.
Don’t get me wrong, Wilson has had a marvelous season and he’s going to have a very long and prosperous career. But he’s a rookie coming into a noisy and hostile dome.
The Seahawks are what the Falcons were back on that day they went into Arizona -- a team with a rookie quarterback, happy just to be in the playoffs, making a cross-country trip.
Wilson won’t be the best quarterback in Atlanta on Sunday. That honor belongs to Ryan, who has continued to mature and has produced the best statistical season of his career.
In his three previous playoff games, Ryan wasn’t the best quarterback on the field. This time he is, at least on paper.
If Ryan goes out and plays the way he should (and Smith doesn’t try to slow down his offense by force-feeding the ball to aging running back Michael Turner), then Ryan will be the best quarterback on the field in reality as well. Once he wins a playoff game, Ryan finally will be knighted with that “elite’’ title everyone likes to toss around, and the Falcons no longer will have to hear about their postseason woes.
All Ryan has to do is play his game and get the ball to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. All the Falcons -- who now have a defense with swagger thanks to cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon -- have to do is play their game.
Just go out and be the best team on the field.
If that happens, the Falcons will win -- because, for the first time in the postseason in this era, they should win.