The Falcons have learned one key thing from their own previous playoff experience.
To come out on top, you can't turn the ball over. In 2008 and last season as the No. 1 seed, Atlanta turnovers created challenging situations to overcome and get a win.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said on Monday he and his players take that lesson to heart as they begin their third trip through the playoffs. One of the traditional rules of football, turn the ball over less than your opponent, is magnified in the tournament.
"That was the most pressing thing and both of them happened right, if you remember correctly, they both happened, one right before halftime last season and Arizona I think was the first or second play of the second half," Smith said. "We came out and turned the ball over and it was returned for a touchdown as well. It's no different than regular season football, but we've got to make sure that we have ball security. We cannot turn the football over in the postseason. It's imperative."
Turnovers can come in a variety of ways, but one of the most impactful ways for a defense to force them is to get pressure on the quarterback. Pressure on the team's signal caller can force bad decisions under pressure which can result in interceptions.
Matt Ryan threw 12 interceptions this season, the second-highest in his four-year career. Ryan's track through the season is a direct correlation to how well he was protected. Six of his 12 INTs came in the first five weeks of the season, when the offensive line allowed 14 sacks. The Falcons were 2-3 during that stretch.
Since, Atlanta has only 12 sacks to opposing pass rushers, an average of just more than one sack per game in 11 weeks.
Through the final four-game stretch of the season, when Atlanta went 3-1, the offensive line allowed four sacks.
Protection like Ryan's had in the second half of the season will be critical against the New York Giants, Atlanta's first-round playoff opponent.
New York's 48 sacks on defense is the second-highest total in the NFL this season. The defensive line and the pressure it generates has been a staple of New York's defense in recent seasons. Atlanta's offensive line will need to continue its high level of protection for Ryan to steer the offense as he has done in recent weeks.
Smith said Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell uses a line rotation much like the Falcons' employ and they generate pressure and sacks from a variety of looks and personnel, starting with Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
"I think he does a very good job moving the guys around and you'll see they have a very good rotation and they'll put guys at different spots," Smith said. "The Pro Bowl defensive end, Pierre-Paul, you'll see him line up at defensive end, you'll see him line up at defensive tackle and you'll see him line up in a two-point stance as a linebacker in his rushes as well. He's done a very good job in terms of creating the matchups and creating identification issues."
After their rocky start, Atlanta's offensive line finished fourth in the NFL with 26 sacks allowed. With cohesion along the line forming, it appears the Falcons are beginning to play their brand of football at just the right time, and not just on offense.
Including fumbles lost this season (Ryan had three of them), the Falcons have 21 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first five week stretch. Atlanta's defense has forced 29 turnovers, 12 coming in the final four-game stretch.
Atlanta's defense will have its work cut out for it against the Giants. The New York offensive line has only allowed 28 sacks themselves, although Giants quarterback Eli Manning has thrown 16 interceptions, tied for sixth-most in the league.
In a game where two teams are as evenly matched as the Falcons and Giants, turnovers are not just a priority, they're the top priority. Atlanta enters the playoffs on a streak that shows them protecting the football and getting it back to the offense while on defense. It's a proven method for success in the playoffs.