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Falcons cant wait for erase memory of bad playoff loss

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Falcons can't wait to get back to work

Updated Jul 30, 2011 12:51 PM ET

Think it felt like forever for the NFL lockout to get lifted?

Try being Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

Like every other team that fell short of winning the Lombardi Trophy last season, Ryan and Co. were eager to start that quest anew in offseason workouts. Labor strife scuttled those plans.

Four-plus months of the NFL work stoppage were especially torturous for Atlanta because of how its 2010 campaign ended. The Falcons didn’t just fail to capitalize on the home-field advantage that came with an NFC-best 13-3 regular-season record. Atlanta was horrific in a 48-21 second-round loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay that was even more lopsided than the score indicates.

“Any time you don’t play well, you have a bad taste in your mouth,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “When you don’t play well in that type of situation, it sticks with you even longer.”

That’s one of the reasons Ryan was so happy to gargle the proverbial Listerine when the NFL and its players finalized a new collective bargaining agreement. Ryan entered a one-on-one meeting with Smith about the upcoming season last Tuesday immediately after players were allowed inside team headquarters.

“I was excited to get up here,” Ryan told FOXSports.com shortly after the session ended. “As players, we had done a lot of good things this offseason. We had gotten together and worked really hard. I know guys individually had worked really hard. I know our coaches had worked really hard, but I just wasn’t able to talk to them. Finally, we have the building open.”

That means finally having the chance to close the book on one of the most disappointing performances in the franchise’s 45-year history.

After taking a 7-0 lead against Green Bay, the Falcons were outscored by a 42-7 margin. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was nearly flawless in a 31-of-36, three-touchdown passing effort.

Ryan was anything but.

Although he connected on 20 of 29 attempts, Ryan was sacked five times and threw two interceptions. The first came in the Packers' end zone and cost Atlanta the chance at a second-quarter field goal. The second was even more damaging. Packers cornerback Tramon Williams read a telegraphed pass in the flat to wide receiver Roddy White and returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown. Green Bay took a 28-14 halftime lead, and the Falcons deflated.

“The one before the half was completely on me,” Ryan said. “It’s a mistake that I hadn’t made throughout the course of the season and probably a reason why we were so successful, because as a team we didn’t make those mistakes.”

Ryan described the aftermath of his performance as “extremely painful and frustrating.”

“I’m happy for Green Bay and Aaron. He’s an awesome guy,” Ryan said. “But at the same time, the competitor in you never wants to see anyone else win it. You’re selfish in that respect. You want to be that person.

“I made some mistakes that cost us. You want to distance yourself as fast as you can. The only way to do that is getting out on the field.”

The Falcons have done that again at training camp but with a different attitude. Stringing together the franchise’s first three consecutive winning seasons was an impressive accomplishment, but the bar for 2011 is set much higher.

“We’ve progressed to the point that it’s time for us to take that next step,” said Smith, who joined the Falcons with Ryan, star running back Michael Turner and highly regarded general manager Thomas Dimitroff in the 2008 offseason.

“We know we have to play into that second season. That’s what everybody is shooting for — to have the opportunity to be where Green Bay was last year.”

To reach those heights and win their first playoff game under Smith, the Falcons have tweaked their roster. Free agent defensive end Ray Edwards (Minnesota) was signed Friday to help bolster the John Abraham-led pass rush. Atlanta made a major draft-day trade to snare University of Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the No. 6 overall pick. Right tackle Tyson Clabo and linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas also were re-signed.

But how high the Falcons soar depends largely on Ryan’s production. He was one of three NFC quarterbacks voted to the Pro Bowl last season ahead of Rodgers, who was snubbed for the All-Star game. But while posting some outstanding passing statistics — 28 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 62.5 completion percentage — Ryan ranked only 26th among all quarterbacks in average yards per completion (6.5).

One of the reasons Dimitroff made such a bold trade for Jones — the Falcons surrendered four draft picks, including their 2012 first-rounder — was to address the issue. Ryan remembers sitting at home watching the draft when receiving a call from Dimitroff asking him about the decision.

“Not that I was the determining factor,” said a laughing Ryan, who was allowed contact with Falcons officials when the lockout was briefly lifted. “But my response was, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’m cool with it!’ It was an aggressive move, but that’s in Thomas’ makeup. He’s not afraid to make the moves he feels he needs to make. That’s a great thing.”

The fact Dimitroff would call Ryan after the trade shows how much gravitas the quarterback has in the organization. The same goes for Smith putting a meeting with Ryan atop his priority list the instant his quarterback re-entered team headquarters.

“Matt has earned the status that he’s earned by the way he’s played on the field,” Smith said. “He’s the leader of our team.”

A team that Ryan said is determined not to suffer the same fate this season as last.

“One of the things you have to learn: Every snap in the playoffs is critical,” Ryan said. “It’s the difference between winning a Super Bowl and not. It’s not just the difference between a (regular) win and a loss. You have to be able to handle that and deal with that. Not to say I wasn’t prepared for that last year, but I think I’m even better prepared for that this year.”

Smith hopes that proves true of Ryan and his teammates now that they’re back in the fold.

“Our entire staff spent basically every working moment on trying to make sure we improve and get better so when we’re in those situations again we’re going to have a different outcome,” Smith said. “That’s all we can do. We have to try and learn from it and move forward.”

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