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Falcons still in shock over stunning end to season

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The snow that forced the Atlanta Falcons to practice indoors all last week had nearly thawed by Sunday.

It will take a lot longer for the sting of their final game to melt away.

A dream regular season turned into a nightmare once the Falcons got to the playoffs, ruined by another dynamic performance from Aaron Rodgers and what might be the worst showing by Atlanta since the current regime took over in 2008.

The NFC's top-seeded team was one and done, stunningly blown out by the Green Bay Packers 48-21 on Saturday night, leaving a city that had been giddy about its Super Bowl prospects with one giant hangover.

Coach Mike Smith spent much of the day conducting exit interviews with his players, a task that no one in the organization expected to be doing so soon. Then he got started on trying to figure out what went wrong.

"The expectations of this football team have grown since we got here three years ago," said Smith, referring to himself and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "When expectations are raised, you're not necessarily talking about the regular season anymore. You're talking about the second season. That's something we've earned as a football team and an organization. We've got to deal with it because we plan on being in this situation again very shortly."

Dimitroff and Smith don't want to judge the season based solely on the way it ended, with Rodgers throwing for 366 yards to send the Falcons to the worst playoff loss in franchise history.

Atlanta (13-4) did so many things right during the regular season -- and so many things wrong against the Packers, looking totally out of character with four turnovers (the most of the Dimitroff-Smith era) and a season-high five sacks of quarterback Matt Ryan.

"The sky has not fallen, I can assure you of that," Smith said. "We played a very poor football game last night. We coached a very poor football game. Everybody in that room has ownership of that, and it starts with me. But I don't think we can overreact. ... We have to make decisions in the calm after we've been able to take the emotion out of it."

If nothing else, the loss to the Packers exposed a defense that has made strides the last three years but still has work to do.

With nickel back Brian Williams sidelined by a knee injury, the secondary looked totally overmatched. The defensive line also appears in need of an upgrade after squandering numerous chances to take down Rodgers.

On offense, there could be major gaps on the offensive line, which includes a possible unrestricted free agent (Tyson Clabo) and two others (Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl) who would be eligible for restricted free agency under the current labor agreement.

But the biggest issue is the future of tight end Tony Gonzalez, who hasn't said for sure if he'll be back for a 15th season.

The future Hall of Famer came to Atlanta two years ago looking to make a run at his first Super Bowl title. Instead, he's still looking for his first playoff win. As he watched the seconds tick off on another postseason loss, all he could think was "here we go again."

"A great, great, great season. Unbelievable. A lot of fun, a lot of success for this team and this city. A lot of people shared in it and it's fun. A fun ride," Gonzalez said. "It just ended abruptly. We didn't expect it to end this way, and definitely not in the style that it did."

The 34-year-old Gonzalez had 70 catches during another Pro Bowl season.

"I'm not going to think about that right now," he said. "I'm going to go home and enjoy myself, but I feel great physically. I'm fine. I feel like a 30-year-old. I'm just going to go home and relax and kick my feet up and enjoy my family a little bit ... and make my decisions."

Whether he returns or not, Gonzalez feels good about the Falcons' hopes next season and beyond.

"They're going to be one of the glamor teams in the NFL the next five or six years, I guarantee you that," he said. "That's definitely going to weigh into my decision of whether I come back."

The Falcons have no questions about their quarterback. Matt Ryan has matured into one of the NFL's best, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance by throwing for 3,705 yards with 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

But Ryan has struggled in a pair of one-and-done playoff appearances, committing six turnovers and getting tackled for a safety.

"We did a lot of things well this year and we've got a chance to build on some of the things we did this year," Ryan said. "We've got a lot of people coming back, a lot of talent and we certainly expect to be right back in this position next year and get a different outcome."