Playoffs are a whole new world to inexperienced Falcons, Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Matt Ryan's most noteworthy postseason football experience came in the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl, in which the highly decorated quarterback led Boston College to its 11th victory of the season. Ryan, the NFL's 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year, already has led the Atlanta Falcons to that many wins this season, so his appearance in Saturday's NFC Wild-Card Playoff Game against the Arizona Cardinals truly is uncharted ground.

Meanwhile, Ryan's counterpart, Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, has played in two Super Bowls and earned NFL MVP honors after leading the St. Louis Rams to a championship in the 1999 season. In all, Warner, a two-time league MVP, has made seven postseason starts -- experience that could be the decisive edge as the Cardinals host their first playoff game since 1947 and their first in Arizona.

"The hardest thing about going into the playoffs your first time is being too excited and forgetting about some of the things that got you there, your technique, how you line up, because you're so focused on the excitement and trying to make a play," said the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, who, like the Falcons' Mike Smith, is making his playoff head-coaching debut. "That leads to mistakes. It leads to big plays by the opponent. It's always good to have guys who have been there.

"When you get into the huddle and there is that crunch of the play clock, and you're trying to get lined up and trying to get the play right, when you've got guys who understand it, it can help get the younger guys straight."

Besides Warner, whose rebirth at age 37 (4,583 passing yards, 30 touchdowns) is the main reason Arizona won the NFC West title, the Cardinals also have running back Edgerrin James, who has nine playoff starts, all with the Indianapolis Colts. James has re-emerged as Arizona's most viable playoff backfield threat after being demoted in favor of rookie Tim Hightower for most of the season.

James, 30, proved he still has something in store by rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries in the Cardinals' regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks. Like Warner, James' value could be at its highest now that the stakes and pressure have escalated.

"Anybody can get in a game and play," James said. "... You need some guys who are used to playing (in the postseason), so when you look around the huddle, everybody's not rattled. It's just another game. You have to block out everything else that's going on. You have to look at it as football, doing your assignments and beating the other guy."

Atlanta and Arizona are infrequent playoff visitors, so neither team boasts an abundance of players who have handled the magnitude of this weekly do-or-die tournament, where the docket of games is reduced and the national spotlight shines on them.

Of the Falcons' five key offensive skill players, only running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Michael Jenkins have playoff experience -- five games combined. Both played backup roles in those contests.

Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards this season after leaving the San Diego Chargers to sign a six-year, $34.5 million contract with the Falcons, said he has tried to implore his teammates to understand the seriousness of the playoffs. Getting there, especially in the surprising manner the Falcons have, is nice, but winning in the postseason is a lot harder and requires much more focus because the distractions compound.

Composure often determines the winner, Turner said. And it's anyone's guess if Turner's teammates can retain the poise that allowed them to routinely stare down on-field adversity and re-focus to the point where they were one of just five NFL teams to not lose consecutive games.

There have been no signs that Ryan will be rattled or Turner will suddenly have fumble-itis or Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White will come up with a case of the yips. Yet playoff football is different, and one crucial mistake or one huge play can formulate a legacy, even at a young age.

"It's easy to panic in the playoffs," Warner said. "When you think if you don't make the play, then we lose this game and we're done. It's easy to get tight and not play your game. It's what I think the experience helps with."

Playoff experience might be overrated to some degree, though. Case-in-point: Warner.

In his first season as an NFL starter in 1999, the Arena League and NFL Europe veteran completed 27 of 33 passes for 391 yards and five touchdowns as Warner's Rams defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoff round. Two games later, Warner hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after throwing for 414 yards and two TDs in defeating the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Poise and production, especially at quarterback, often comes down to the player's makeup.

"Very impressive," Warner said of Ryan, who completed 265 of 434 passes for 3,440 and 16 touchdowns during the regular season. "You understand how difficult it is to play this position, one of the toughest, if not the toughest positions to play in sports. To come in as a young guy and have to handle what he's handled, from an organizational standpoint, from a football standpoint, and to carry that team and do it as well as he's done, it is extremely impressive.

"There's always a few guys that stick out from the mold. You talk about rookie quarterbacks, and this is what they do or if they get in the playoffs. Then there are a few guys you just throw out the window, and it's a guy like Matt. He's done beyond anything anybody expected of him. People may say it's his first playoff game, it's a bigger situation, but why do you expect him to not continue to perform at a high level? He's handled everything so well up to this point."

Whisenhunt said Ryan's success has been, in part, predicated on Turner. Opposing teams have needed to focus on stuffing the run -- as Arizona will -- allowing Ryan favorable matchups in the passing game. Turner also is the ultimate bailout plan when all else fails.

The irony of that is the Cardinals were seriously interested in signing Turner as a free agent last spring. Had they landed him, Warner and James might not be part of this historic Arizona season. Matt Leinart could have been the young quarterback bolstered by a strong running game, and some of the same things being said about the Falcons' present and future could have been the Cardinals' storyline.

But things unfolded the way they did, and two teams who aren't accustomed to this kind of thing will now face each other roughly one year after the Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-27 in overtime in Arizona. Both teams then had losing records.

A youthful arm and fresh legs have revitalized one franchise. A seasoned arm and durable legs have elevated another. The winner will continue to exceed expectations. The loser must deal with the reality that experienced or not, it didn't have quite enough.

"You look at ability and talent, we have probably some of the most talent across the board as any team in this thing," James said. "The [overall] experience is what we don't have. We don't have the support of a lot of people because they're not used to seeing us play in a big game. We just have to stick together and keep doing what we do and keep making plays.

"If you win this game, you'll have more people pulling for you. If you lose this game, you're going to have people say, 'That's what we thought,' because that's what a lot of people expected."

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