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Mike Smith's Atlanta Falcons can salvage season with two wins

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» The biggest thing Jay Gruden wants from Robert Griffin III.
» Why Jim Harbaugh could give Michigan very serious thought.
» What's the latest on the Los Angeles front?
And much more, beginning with a disappointing team's golden opportunity for redemption. ...

Mike Smith raises the 2008 NFL playoffs, when his 11-win Atlanta Falcons lost to the 9-7 Cardinals in Arizona. The coach remembers the 2011 postseason, when he was forced to lead a 10-win Atlanta group into the Meadowlands, where they fell to the 9-7 Giants.

So, sorry, but you won't hear him feigning contrition for the situation his team is in now.

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"I'm not gonna apologize for where we're at," Smith said Thursday, with a hint of defiance, from his office overlooking the Falcons' Flowery Branch practice fields. "This is the way the league is set up."

Indeed, Smith's troops do have everything in front of them. Wins over the Saints on Sunday and the Panthers a week from then will give the Falcons a third division title (and fifth postseason berth) in seven years under Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- and, possibly, a home date against a Drew Stanton/Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals team in Round 1 of the NFC playoffs.

None of that changes the fact that the Falcons are 5-9.

Nor does it erase the reality that 2014 hasn't been anything near what they expected.

And a loss at the Superdome on Sunday -- which would be their fourth straight in New Orleans -- would push the Falcons to consecutive double-digit-loss seasons for the first time since the turn of the century.

That's how the thin the line is between success and failure in Atlanta, which makes the end to this particular season rather complicated for everyone in the building.

Asked if he thinks he's coaching for his job, Smith resolutely answers, "No. No."

But it's not like he's covering his eyes, plugging his ears and whistling by the rubble, either. Atlanta's fall to 4-12 last year led to a splurge on big men in the early stages of free agency, as well as the investment of two top-40 picks on linemen, in an effort to get stronger and tougher in the trenches. The belief, of course, was that there was enough talent everywhere else to justify the spending, in both cash and draft capital, on particular need areas.

Things haven't exactly gone to plan, and Smith will be the first to concede that.

"Yeah, very disappointed, in the consistency with which we've played, and the consistency in how we've coached," Smith said. "But at the same time, we're a relevant football team in December, and one of the things we talk about every year: We want to be a relevant team in December. Now, I didn't think playing the way we've played this year, that we'd have a chance to be relevant.

"If you said, 'This is gonna be your win-loss record at this point in the season,' I'd say more than likely we weren't gonna be a relevant football team. But we are."

So where does all this leave the Falcons?

Right in front of our eyes, Atlanta will find out. Is this a team in need of an overhaul? Or simply a growing group that took time to come together? Will there be a shakeup in the organizational structure? Or will Arthur Blank stay the course?

Therein lies the beauty of the Falcons' position. It comes down to two weeks to earn a playoff bid, yes -- but it's also two weeks to see where the franchise stands.

Smith freely admits the 32nd-ranked defense has fallen woefully short of what he and Dimitroff envisioned when they brought in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson to supplement a growing back seven. He also explains that the offense needs to be better situationally, particularly in the red zone and on third down, to make up for the defense's issues.

The roadmap, as he sees it, isn't very complicated. And as things set up now, he can easily fall back on a message he's delivered for years.

"They know," Smith said. "They know exactly what we've gotta do. We lay it out, we talk about what success is, what the plan is for success, how you do it, and then you start the season. The first thing we always say: 'Gotta win the division games.' If you win the division games, it gives you the opportunity to win your division. Win your division, that's the easiest way into the playoffs."

Going 4-0 in the division and 1-9 elsewhere probably isn't the most ideal way to prove that, but it's where Atlanta is right now.

And Smith thinks the first figure is far more indicative of the team he has than the second one. Moreover, with seven offseasons under their belt, the guys here know it has to be.

"Between 1 and 32 in the NFL, it's like this," said Smith, holding two fingers an inch apart. "And I have a lot of confidence when we play consistent football, we can play as good football as anybody in the National Football League -- I believe that. You see that year-in and year-out. How many six seeds have won?"

The aforementioned Giants and Cardinals teams -- not six seeds, but 9-7 outfits -- are raised again. Both made it to the Super Bowl. Each was written off in December.

"It's all about playing your best football at the right time, because the difference between 1 and 32, it's not very much," Smith continued. "There are so many things, so many factors."

And right now, not much time.

Either way, the Falcons are on the precipice of something. At 5-9, they're fortunate that the rest is still up to them.

Four downs

1) Redskins/RGIII in a critical stage. For all the analysis of the relationship between Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III, my understanding is that the quarterback's deployment has always boiled down to this -- Gruden's desire for Griffin to earn playing time, just like everyone else on the roster. That's the approach Gruden has tried to take over the last 12 months and, believe or not, that's really where the coach's agenda ends, if you listen to people in that building. In fact, it's no sure thing at all that Griffin would be starting Saturday, had Colt McCoy not gotten hurt. The plan was to evaluate both of them postgame, a plan that was blown up by McCoy's neck problem. Putting that part of it aside, what's really interesting about the dynamic here comes clear when you review Griffin's past. He was anointed the savior of a struggling Baylor program upon arriving in Waco in 2008, came in early in his first game as a collegian, and was the starter (when he wasn't injured) from there on out. He arrived in the pros, and, like classmate Andrew Luck, was immediately installed as the starter, before taking a single practice rep -- something that hadn't happened in the NFL since Peyton Manning entered the league 14 years earlier. That's not to say RGIII hasn't earned plenty of things over the last decade. It does raise the question of whether he's ever really had to fight for it, the way Gruden wants him to now. So, naturally, there's friction. When Gruden said to me last month that Griffin has been "coddled" over the course of his career, that's where he was coming from -- Griffin's talent always won out in the past, so he'd never really been in this particular spot before. And that's why now, as much as they want to see production from the QB this week and next, the coaches will be looking even closer at how he competes to keep the job, and how he does as a leader in a less-than-ideal spot.

2) Trouble for Trestman. Many coaches come with knocks. Bill Belichick was once considered too cold and unrelatable to lead his own team. Tom Coughlin was too much of a taskmaster. Mike Tomlin was too young. And all of those guys have been to multiple Super Bowls over the last decade. Conversely, where coaches really run into trouble is when the criticism rings true after a couple years on the job -- and that's where Marc Trestman is now. Two months ago, after the Brandon Marshall locker room blowup, I asked a veteran NFL executive who knows Trestman if he thought the Bears coach would be able to navigate the trouble ahead. The answer: "He's not tough enough to handle it. Doesn't have the ability to control the locker room. You have to have balls and be respected by the players. They need to know that you will fight for you." The following Sunday, Chicago was blown out by the Patriots. The next time out, the Bears were run off the field in similar fashion by the Packers. Since then, there's been the Aaron Kromer fiasco, three consecutive national TV no-shows, and, finally, Jay Cutler's benching. Maybe the biggest question about Trestman when he interviewed for jobs before landing the Bears gig was if he could reel a team in when faced with adversity. And this year has shown the concern was well founded, which would make it difficult for Chicago to bring him back. GM Phil Emery isn't immune there, either. He knew the questions hovering around Trestman and pushed forward, which will make it tough for the McCaskeys to put him in charge of another coaching search.

3) The pull of Michigan. Jim Harbaugh's job status will hover over everything in the weeks ahead, and it should. But the news of Michigan's willingness to push the envelope will certainly give him something to think about. Yes, Harbaugh can probably make more money in the pros; he wouldn't have to recruit or glad-hand (a reason many coaches prefer the NFL to college); and he would likely have much more control over his situation than he did when he landed in San Francisco in 2011. But the same way Bear Bryant had a gravitational pull to Alabama -- "When momma calls, you just have to come runnin' " -- there is an irreversible draw to Michigan for Harbaugh. Two Januarys ago, I did a story on how the "10-Year War" (between Ohio State and Michigan) affected Jim and John Harbaugh, ahead of their Super Bowl showdown. Jim was as helpful for that story as any I've done with him. "Those two men -- Bo (Schembechler) and Woody Hayes -- in my young mind, and in my old mind today, and every year in between, those two are larger than life," Jim said. "Spent a great deal of time thinking about those men and how they approached the game, how they approached teaching, and then tried my very best to be like them." When asked specifically about Schembechler, his college coach, Harbaugh said, "My dad had the greatest respect for Bo Schembechler. Go back to my dad, through the coaches, he respected Bo Schembechler the most, and (ex-Bowling Green coach) Doyt Perry the most. We all, as a family, gained a great deal of respect for Coach Schembechler, because of the way our dad talked about him. ... If people see characteristics of Bo Schembechler's teams, or the characteristics of the Baltimore Ravens in our team, that would be something we'd be proud of. That's something that we strive to be." Now, the flip side here is that Harbaugh was said to have taken it personally in 2007 when he wasn't considered for the job Rich Rodriguez got, and grudges can linger. But there are different people in charge now, and it's a proud program that needs help. I still think he probably stays in the NFL, but the pull of becoming Schembechler has to weigh heavy on his mind. And it's probably why a source said earlier in the week that Michigan is very much in the game.

4) Buffalo's defensive revival is real -- and could be just the beginning. The Bills entered last Sunday as the only team in the NFL to rank top 10 in all 10 major defensive statistical categories. After playing (and beating) the high-octane Packers, they still hold this standing in nine of them. That's pretty remarkable, seeing as though they've already played Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. And there's reason to believe the best is yet to come. Core pieces Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Aaron Williams are under contract through at least 2016. While Marcell Dareus needs to be taken care of -- he's having an All-Pro type of year -- and Jerry Hughes might have to be tagged, the team still holds its option for 2016 on Stephon Gilmore. Add all that up, as well as the ages of most of those players, and there's plenty to be excited for, especially if Jim Schwartz is back next year and not a head coach somewhere else. Newcomer Brandon Spikes explained it this way to me: "I had this feeling since I signed here; you could just tell with this group. It's been great, the season's been good, the locker room is good. ... It's our job now to push the younger guys, and teach them that the small things get you wins. Talent might get you to six or seven wins. You have to play for the man next to you to win a championship." There have been some rumblings about GM Doug Whaley's job security in league circles, a result of the EJ Manuel pick, the 2015 first-rounder surrendered as part of the Sammy Watkins trade and the deals for Mike Williams and Bryce Brown. And there's no question that the offense has had problems. But if Whaley wants to make his case, it'd be pretty easy for him to point to the other side of the ball, and show off the foundation he's built there.

Three checkdowns

1) John Harbaugh should get a look for Coach of the Year. As Peter King wrote on Monday, the Ravens have turned over 17 of their 22 starting spots since Super Bowl XLVII. Harbaugh has replaced his offensive coordinator and steadied the team through the choppy waters of the Ray Rice situation. Here they are, 9-5, and close to a sixth playoff berth in seven seasons under Harbaugh.

2) Expect Brian Kelly to consider the pros in January much more seriously than he has the last two years. Word is Kelly's frustrated with the Notre Dame administration and might have even looked at jumping to Florida if the Gators had come after him. The knock he'll have to fight is that he's a stern taskmaster -- some believe he'd have the same problems Nick Saban did in the NFL.

3) Because owner Jed York is a Notre Dame alum, the Niners could wind up being connected to Kelly, with Harbaugh's successor at Stanford, David Shaw, also likely to draw speculation. But word around the league is that current Niners D-line coach Jim Tomsula remains very viable in San Francisco's eyes, so long as he can keep the bulk of the staff together.

Two college players to watch Saturday

In a weekly series, draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah polls five NFL personnel executives about college football's top prospects.

Utah DE Nate Orchard (vs. Colorado State, Las Vegas Bowl, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): A wildly productive four-year player who'll be at the Senior Bowl next month, Orchard exploded for 17.5 sacks this fall, good enough to secure the Ted Hendricks Award and a second-team All-America nod. Yet, the way one NFC GM sees it, "He may go late Friday night (on draft weekend) if a 3-4 team approves, but he's more likely to go sometime Saturday. Better production than traits that project to the NFL." An AFC college scouting director added, "He's a solid athlete, he runs well, and he's an effort player from a standup OLB or DE position -- and a good rusher. He'll be a (nickel) rusher and special teams player that can work his way into being a full-time starter." He's shorter than the 6-foot-4 the program lists him at, and as an end/linebacker tweener, he might have trouble finding the right fit in the NFL. The flip side is the value that NFL teams have put on pass rushers, even in cases where that's all a player does well. And some of the knocks on Orchard seem to parallel with the questions that once followed Elvis Dumervil around.

Colorado State LT Ty Sambrailo (vs. Utah, Las Vegas Bowl, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Sambrailo's not spectacular, but he comes from a pro-style system and, as such, is less of a projection to the NFL than blockers from the sea of spread offenses at the college level. "He's athletic," said a second AFC college scouting director. "He's probably best suited to play on the right side or even at guard. He's been a great run blocker for them, he can really get to the second level. ... He's not gonna overwhelm you with his size, he won't overwhelm you with his athleticism. But he does everything well." Sambrailo started at right tackle as a freshman, flipped to the left side the next year, started all four seasons and possesses football smarts that have scouts believing he can play four positions at the NFL level. Again, he's not Jonathan Ogden or anything, but put the package together, and this is a potential 10-year starter who should be available in the second or third round. Sambrailo should also see some of Orchard on Saturday, which will set up a solid proving ground.

Extra point

With the personal conduct policy put to bed, Commissioner Roger Goodell will spend more time in the coming weeks on Los Angeles. And those in the know expect him to continue to act with caution when it pertains to the NFL's reentry into the nation's second-largest television market.

Why? Well, because as the league sees it, failing in Los Angeles again would be awfully destructive.

As it stands now, the NFL is successful without a club in L.A. Having a team, or two teams, that fail there would hurt the enormous television audience that pro football draws in the marketplace now, and have a decades-long impact on the popularity of the sport in the area.

The first priority in making sure that doesn't happen is finding the right stadium site. Six were presented to the owners in October: Dodger Stadium, Hollywood Park, Downtown, City of Industry and two in Carson. Then, it'll be about finding the right team and owner to make it work in L.A.

The stars still have yet to align.

The Rams will exercise an option to take their lease year to year next month, but owner Stan Kroenke still has to satisfy cross-ownership rules (as he has promised to do), and a task force in St. Louis is expected to present the team with a plan containing substantial public funding in a few weeks, which would make it harder to justify walking in the short term.

The Chargers are staying put in 2015 but could leave in future years without much of a financial penalty. That said, the league likes the San Diego market. The Spanos family does, too, although their patience on a new stadium might be wearing thin. And the Raiders are lingering as a possibility, though they'd be much more likely to be the second team in L.A. than the first.

"Roger has always taken the position that the circumstances have to be optimal," one source connected to the process said. "If the team doesn't succeed, he knows it could damage the league in that market for generations."

At the most recent league meeting in Dallas last week, the owners were informed by league exec Eric Grubman that there could be multiple sites and teams to consider, and that the NFL didn't know whether or not a relocation application for 2015 was coming. The period to apply starts on Jan. 1 and closes on Feb. 15.

The smart money says nothing happens this time around.

And because a number of different things have to line up to make L.A. work, it's hard to say when real movement will happen. But there's no question that there is a push in some corners to accelerate the process with the league now having been out of L.A. for two decades.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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