It's 2010 all over again for the Atlanta Falcons.
Just like two seasons back, the Falcons finished 13-3 in the regular season. Once again, they have the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
This time, they vow they're mature enough to make the most of the opportunity.
The Falcons will try to end their recent trend of first-game postseason exits Sunday when they play the streaking Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons had a first-round bye last week while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson led Seattle to a 24-14 comeback win at the Washington Redskins.
The Seahawks (12-5) bring a six-game winning streak to Atlanta.
Atlanta had never managed back-to-back winning seasons before a new era began in 2008 with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons have five straight winning records and four playoff seasons, including three straight.
So far, all the regular-season success has led only to postseason disappointment. Smith and Ryan are 0-3 in the postseason, including a home loss to Green Bay in 2010 and an ugly 24-2 loss at the Giants last year.
The Falcons say they've learned from the playoff defeats and are better prepared this year.
"We've been here in the past before and now we're more mature," said safety Thomas DeCoud. "We know what we can and cannot do.
"It's a sense of pride, more of an internal sense of pressure rather than anything external. As professional athletes we all want to go out there and perform well and get this monkey off our backs, so to speak."
The Falcons can only marvel at Wilson's ability to pull off a road win in his first playoff game. Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards and ran for 67 yards in last week's win. Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to beat the Redskins.
Wilson, a third-round pick, has outlasted Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the playoffs.
"My expectations are very high," Wilson said. "That's allowed me to be where I am today. If I listen to everybody who said I can't do it, there's no way I could play in the National Football League, there's no way I'd be starting in the National Football League. There's no way I'd be here today."
Center Todd McClure, in his 13th season, is the only holdover from the last Atlanta team to win a playoff game, in 2004.
"I feel like this is the best team I've been on since I've been here," McClure said. "I'm not just saying that. I feel like this is the best opportunity I've had and we've had to make a run. We have to go out on Sunday and execute. We have to play our best football to win this game and I think we're ready for it."
The 35-year-old McClure says he thinks he'll return for another season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is 36, says he's 95 percent certain he will retire even though he made his 13th Pro Bowl. Among other key veterans on the team are cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Michael Turner.
Looking back at 2010 and 2011, McClure says the Falcons are fortunate to have this opportunity to make up for past postseason failures. He says there is no assurance there will be another chance.
"These opportunities in the playoffs, they don't happen every year," McClure said. "Some teams seem like they're in just about every year but you look over guys' careers and it's hard to get in the playoffs. Even if I do play another year it's not a certainty I'll be back in this situation. It's like that for everybody in this locker room. We want to take advantage of where we're at."
The Falcons' offense has evolved in the five seasons under Smith, whose early teams featured Turner's runs. First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made this a pass-first offense with more screens and more big plays for Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Ryan set franchise marks with 4,719 yards passing and 32 touchdowns while completing 68.6 percent of his passes for another record.
"Obviously we've got a tough seed in front of us," Wilson said. "We're going to Atlanta. It's going to be a hostile crowd. ... We just need to enjoy what it is and see what happens."
It's 2010 all over again for the Atlanta Falcons.
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