The Atlanta Falcons may have a bye week heading into their opening playoff game on January 13, but there will be little resting taking place.
The Falcons will be sure to watch hours of game film of their opponent—as of yet undetermined between the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks—to prepare for their divisional round matchup.
But they should also dig up the tapes of their last three playoff games.
Rather, because the blueprint those teams used to defeat those Falcons of old is the same the Falcons of new need to apply to make the Super Bowl.
It is as follows.
1. Force Mistakes
Each of those past Falcons teams were blessed yet cursed due to one thing: They thrived on flawless execution.
No penalties. No fumbles. No interceptions. Simply put, no sloppy play.
It's what got them by in the regular season, but come playoff time everything always seemed to fall apart.
Against the Cardinals, three turnovers by quarterback Matt Ryan and one by running back Michael Turner led to 14 points for Arizona.
Against the Packers, three more turnovers by Ryan and a fumble by wide receiver Michael Jenkins gave Green Bay 20 easy points.
Last season against the Giants, dropped passes by receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones stalled Atlanta's offense, which never found its rhythm.
In short, uncharacteristic mistakes led to the Falcons' downfall in those playoff games.
This time around they can have the same be true for their opponents instead. All they have to do is do what they've done all year: confuse the opposing quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has made a knack of creating chaos for opposing quarterbacks all year long thanks to disguised coverages. They're what forced three Peyton Manning interceptions in Week 2, five Drew Brees interceptions in Week 13 and two Eli Manning interceptions in Week 15.
And those are three of the league's most respected signal-callers.
Imagine the frustration Nolan's various looks on defense could potentially cause the likes of second-year pros Christian Ponder and Colin Kaepernick or rookies Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
Now imagine all of the turnovers that are sure to come of it.
2. Stop the Run (Or Take it Away)
Of course, as young quarterbacks in offenses depend on dominant running games to limit mistakes, the way to force those mistakes is to get them to pass.
And that will only come if the Falcons figure out how to stop the run.
The Cardinals, Packers and Giants all did it in those past playoff games, holding then-workhorse Turner to 42, 39 and 41 yards rushing respectively.
The common theme for the above teams in those games was relentless penetration in the backfield, something the Falcons have struggled to achieve consistently in a year they have allowed a whopping 123.2 yards a game and 16 rushing touchdowns on the season, 12th- and 8th-most in the league, respectively.
It's unlikely the Falcons' run defense this season stops their opponent's rushing attack the way their opponents stopped theirs in past postseason games, especially considering their three potential opening game opponents make up the top three rushing offenses in the league this year.
But there's a way they can force their opponent to stop it themselves: Jump out to an early lead.
It's been the Falcons' M.O. all season long, and it has worked to near perfection: Matt Ryan and the passing game gets off to a hot start, giving the Falcons a 10,14,17-point lead to start the game.
It forces their run-heavy opponents out of a comfortable clock-controlling game plan into panic stricken, quick-score needing catch-up mode. It's what happened to the Falcons in their recent postseason losses and exactly what can lead to victory against the likes of Minnesota, Seattle, Washington and San Francisco this year.
3. Stay Balanced on Offense
An offense keeps that is able to keep opposing defense on its heels, never able to truly know what to expect on a given play, is a dangerous offense.
For the Falcons' past playoff opponents, that came by way of obtaining balance between running plays and passing plays.
The Cardinals called 32 passing plays to 28 runs against the Falcons in 2008. Two seasons later, the Falcons saw the Packers pass the ball 38 times and run it 31, while last year they saw the Giants throw the ball on them 33 times and run it 31.
It slowed down an already inconsistent pass rush from the Falcons, all while allowing those teams pass, play-action and run plays to flourish.
The Falcons of this year don't need a running game to achieve the same. All they need is the screen pass.
As noted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter, Atlanta's screen pass attack already has become an extension of the running game, accomplishing the same goals as those listed above all while being a threat in itself. Case in point, Ryan finished the season 62-of-69 for 495 yards and six touchdowns on screen plays this year according to Ledbetter.
The above is what allowed the Cardinals, Packers and Giants to reach the Super Bowl.
This year, it might be exactly what allows the Falcons to reach it themselves.
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