The Atlanta Falcons know all about Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman.
But around Atlanta, it’s the prospect of Juan N. Dunne that has fans jittery.
Juan N. Dunne? This is not an actual person, merely a seasonal affliction, and it’s very real. The Falcons became familiar with Juan N. Dunne in 2008, when Arizona spoiled the playoff debut of coach Mike Smith. A more sustained playoff run was expected in 2010 – the Falcons owned home-field advantage as the NFC’s top seed – until the buzz saw that was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers took them apart in the Georgia Dome.
Last season, the Falcons opened the playoffs with a road game against a seemingly nondescript New York Giants team that finished 9-7.
Final score: Giants 24, Falcons 2.
Eli Manning and Co. went on to upset New England in the Super Bowl. The Falcons? They returned to Atlanta, doomed to contemplate another postseason that ended almost as soon as it began.
Now come the Seahawks, relishing their role as the playoff derby’s sassy upstarts after rolling over Washington in the wild-card round. Despite a 13-3 record that included a meaningless season-finale defeat – despite the fact Atlanta has won 35 of 40 home games under Smith – there’s an elephant in the room, a gorilla in the Falcons’ midst.
Three playoff games since 2008 have produced three quick, one-and-done exits for Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Falcons won’t be talking about it this week, but until they prove differently, Juan N. Dunne remains a pattern on the threshold of a curse.
Simple bad luck has been a factor: The Cardinals were hot in 2008 – quarterback Kurt Warner was making his last hurrah – and the Packers and Giants, wild cards en route to world championships, were even hotter.
But mistakes were made. The 2010 Falcons, awarded a bye in the first round, enjoyed three days off after the conclusion of the regular season, then took the weekend off as well. Too much rest can lead to rust, not to mention some idle-minded complacency.
“We probably thought back then that we arrived,” running back Michael Turner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the other day. “We thought (we) were better than we were. We didn’t approach the week like we should have, looking back on it.”
Instead of using this season’s playoff-bye week as a break, Smith scheduled four practices. He didn’t know whether his team would be facing the Seahawks, Redskins or Vikings, nor did he care. Light workouts were held to keep the Falcons’ focus on football.
Ryan’s sluggish playoff performances (through three games, he has yet to pass for 200 yards) are threatening to undermine the legacy of an otherwise stellar career, and the Falcons have gotten no help from a ground attack built around Turner, who’s averaged 40 yards per playoff game.
But efficiency is paramount during January, and a general sloppiness has haunted the Falcons: three turnovers at Arizona; four turnovers against the Packers. If the Seahawks are the recipients of four turnovers on Sunday, they’ll be locks to advance to the NFC Championship game.
Then again, considering Atlanta’s star-crossed playoff history, the Hawks might be locks anyway. It’s a history that goes back to 1980, when Atlanta was home for a playoff opener against the Cowboys.
Steve Bartkowski’s touchdown pass to William Andrews gave the Falcons a 24-10 lead midway through the third quarter. A field goal that kept the margin at 10 points, 27-17, looked like an insurance score with 6:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But Danny White rallied the Cowboys. White hooked up with Preston Pearson, with :42 remaining, for a winning touchdown that sent Atlanta, in the words of CBS broadcaster Vin Scully, “from euphoria to the pits of depression.”
What happened in 1980 is irrelevant to the Falcons and Seahawks teams heading toward their showdown on Sunday. Irrelevant, to be sure, except for this: The euphoria-to-the-pits-of-depression scene described by Scully is core to the lore of pro football in Atlanta.
“Cursed” might be too strong a term, but “traditionally frustrated” is in the mix.
Your move, Seahawks. Although Juan N. Dunne might be a nobody, he’s looking like the very best kind of 12th man.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com