Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons working to be playoff-ready

TAMPA, Fla. -- Each practice this year, when the Atlanta Falcons' first-team offense is relegated to the sideline while the defense is running its share of drills, the wide receivers and tight ends stand in a circle off to the side, tossing hard passes to each other.

Years ago, former NFL coach Steve Mariucci developed the drill, dubbed "Around the World," while watching Jerry Rice do something similar in San Francisco. Mariucci taught it to current Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who taught it this year to his young, talented teammates.

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The reason is simple. And in the wake of the tough, gritty win Atlanta pulled out Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is also validated.

"You can't expect to be better than everybody else if you're doing the same thing as everybody else," Gonzalez said in an empty, quiet locker room shortly before the team's flight back to Atlanta from Tampa. "We're getting 75 to 100 extra catches per day, which adds up during the week and carries over into the game."

This, in the minds of these players, is one reason for Atlanta's surge this year. It is why these Falcons are 10-1. They are learning. They are growing. And beyond just doing a drill -- which, by the way, certainly could help explain wide receiver Julio Jones' 147-yard performance -- they are starting to prove their worth with wins like Sunday's.

"We're coming up with plays when we have to -- and I can't really put a finger on why it happens," Gonzalez said. "But maybe it's because we are doing the little things right. Whether it's in the weight room or extra stretching, you never know when you're going to need that little extra oomph."

It has become clear that the NFL world and its fan base will not be willing to accept Atlanta as a serious threat -- not the way a higher-profile team would be anointed at 10-1 -- until the Falcons do something in the postseason. But what we forget, what we cast aside during those very discussions, is the value of growth.

While everyone else worries about Atlanta's playoff projections, the Falcons concern themselves with learning valuable lessons in the moment. In other words, rather than waiting around for it, they are preparing for it. And such an approach could pay off.

Take Sunday. Unlike two weeks before, when a visit to the New Orleans Saints resulted in the Falcons' first loss of the season after two disappointing fourth-quarter drives inside the 5-yard line yielded just three total points, they found a way to escape a road game against an NFC South foe with a victory.

The Falcons didn't just get their passing game going -- they also did something they've struggled to do throughout the season. They stopped the run, holding explosive rookie Doug Martin to just 50 yards on 21 carries, a major development in itself.

"We knew they were going to run the ball -- that's been a nemesis of ours," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "We focused on it all week in practice. We know what kind of defense we can be if we stop the run, and we came out here and did a great job with that.



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"If we can get some of these mental errors fixed, we can be a great football team. But stopping the run was our No. 1 goal, and we did that."

The Falcons still had some concerns on Sunday, but none that they won't be able to address as they move toward the postseason.

It surely would have been slightly more comforting for Atlanta if it hadn't needed a defensive holding call to provide a new set of downs after an incomplete pass on third-and-5 at the Bucs' 5-yard line almost stalled the team's final touchdown drive. And it would have been nice if kicker Matt Bryant had hit a 48-yard field-goal attempt with 13 seconds left, which would have kept the game from coming down to a failed Hail Mary try by the Bucs.

But that's the way it goes in the NFL. As Gonzalez noted, sometimes that little extra moment, that little extra "oomph," separates a win from a loss.

In general, aside from a first-half interception, quarterback Matt Ryan had a terrific game. He completed 26 of 32 passes with 353 yards and a touchdown, taking advantage of a weak Tampa Bay pass defense and successfully rebounding from last week's five-interception performance against the Arizona Cardinals. In the same way that the Falcons proved capable of recovering from their loss to the Saints, Ryan showed he can bounce back from a bad game.

"You have to learn from your mistakes," Gonzalez said. "And I think we have."

So what is the next step? How must the Falcons progress as they prepare themselves -- both in practice and during games -- for that fateful start to the playoffs? Well, funny you should ask. The perfect opportunity is literally hours away.

After a quick turnaround, Atlanta gets another shot at the Saints on Thursday Night Football on NFL Network. The Falcons can very clearly prove something to themselves, and thus improve their confidence heading into the final stretch of the season, by beating a team they should have defeated two weeks ago.

"We feel really good where we are at," wide receiver Roddy White said. "We've got a game coming up against the Saints on Thursday night and that's going to be a big one for us in the division. So we've got to move past this one and move on and get ready for the next game."

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From a logistical standpoint, the Saints game matters because a win will all but lock up the NFC South for Atlanta. But it is important for so many more reasons than that.

While the rest of us are waiting around for the Falcons to prove they can win in the playoffs, they refuse to do the same. Just as Gonzalez and his teammates are unwilling to stand idly by on the sidelines during practice, the Falcons will charge ahead, learning, one lesson at a time.

How far they'll advance is a legitimate question. But after wins like Sunday's, it's becoming easier to believe this season won't end like the others in the Falcons' recent past.

"We're just jockeying for position here," Gonzalez said. "We're putting ourselves in the best position to play the best football right around this time. This is when you want to start jelling as a team. It doesn't matter what your record is -- you just want to be playing good football at this point."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.