Atlanta Falcons  

 

Playoff spot in hand, Falcons ready to take next step

NEW ORLEANS -- The Falcons know the score here.

Yes, they can accomplish a couple of their internal goals on Monday night. By knocking off the Saints at the Superdome, Atlanta will have beaten an archrival, kept alive its chances at the NFC South title, and guaranteed itself a “win” of the fourth quarter of the season.

But yes, these Falcons are also aware of the obvious. The current regime –- having done a remarkable job of rebuilding and posting four straight winning seasons for a franchise that had never before had two in a row –- still lacks a playoff win. That can’t be rectified in New Orleans, and won’t change until after New Year’s Day.

It’s there, though, and these guys are human. So it’s in the back of their minds, with the biggest game of the regular season coming up.

“I know this -– everyone’s aware of what the record is,” coach Mike Smith said over the phone from his office on Friday afternoon. “I don’t believe it’s something that we have at the front of our minds. There’s a process you have to go through in a season, and we’ve got to go through that process. I think it’ll be a bigger point of focus as we get into the season. ... For now, we’re fighting our tails off to get in.”

That part’s now settled, with the Falcons getting in on Sunday night, after the Bears lost in Green Bay.

Smith and his troops, though, have a pretty good example to draw from their recent past on just how important it is to carry momentum into January. And the New Orleans game gives the Falcons a chance to build some of that.

It’s not necessarily that the Falcons weren’t playing well going into last January. They were 13-3.

It’s that the Packers came in with knives sharpened before carving up Atlanta 48-21 at the Georgia Dome.

Green Bay had stumbled through parts of the regular season but kept improving late, amid a rash of serious injuries, and was primed for that showdown. Similarly, the Falcons started this year 2-3 and have since righted the ship with seven wins in nine games.

“We’ve been more consistent in all three phases,” Smith says. “There was a stretch in that 7-2 run when we started to play really good special teams, and our young punter started punting better and creating field position. Matt (Ryan) has really come on with the offense -- he’s been more efficient and gotten into a rhythm with regards to where the ball’s going. And defensively, we’ve been solid. We haven’t give up the explosive plays we had been.”

So now, the measuring stick.

The Falcons’ last loss was an unsightly defeat in Houston. The loss previous to that was the overtime barnburner at home against the Saints.

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And the emotion in that one was just like the rest of the Falcons-Saints games since Smith (he’s 2-5 vs. New Orleans) arrived in 2008. While he’s steady, the coach readily concedes there’d been a “different energy” and “heightened awareness” during the week with this particular rivalry on tap. At best, the Falcons gather a head of steam and stay alive in the division race. At worst, they figure out where they’re at.

Remember, the front end of this year’s home-and-home featured Sean Payton returning to the sideline earlier than expected, even while being relegated to crutches. So it’s not hard to see how everyone is busting tail to prove his worth.

“You want to do your job as well or better than the guy on the other team does his,” Smith said. “For Matt, right now, Drew (Brees) is playing as well as anyone has ever played the quarterback position, in my mind. He’s 72 percent for the season, and it’s not just dink-and-dunk -– he’s gonna break (Dan) Marino’s record –- it’s mind-boggling. So I think all our guys know they’ll have to have their best game.”

If it works out for Atlanta tonight?

That’s great, of course, for the club. The Falcons would be 10-5, and keep faint hope of a repeat South title alive -– with New Orleans facing a tricky one against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 17.

But regardless of what happens, the important thing is this group will be judged on what happens in January. Even with focus on New Orleans and finishing the regular season, Smith can concede that.

“I believe everything we have done, up until this point (through four years) has been to improve the team and the roster,” Smith said. “And yes, I do feel we’re better equipped now (to win in the playoffs). We’re in the fourth year of this process. Each and every year, we’ve improved our team.”

And as the team’s gotten better, more has been demanded.

Only time will tell on whether that next hurdle is cleared. On Monday night, though, we all might get a few hints on just how far this group of Falcons has come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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