The Atlanta Falcons are 7-0 and it means absolutely nothing. If you don't believe me, just ask them.
Falcons players and staff know the drill. Atlanta has put up gaudy statistics before. The Falcons have had home-field advantage in the playoffs. And despite all that, the Falcons' version of the "Big Three" -- the attached-at-the-hip trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- has yet to win a playoff game since forming in 2008, when owner Arthur Blank constructed his vision for turning the franchise around after the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino embarrassments.
It's worth pausing, as this Falcons season rolls on, to mention the former quarterback (Vick) and the former coach (Petrino). It's worth remembering how low the franchise was before Blank tabbed Dimitroff, who picked Smith; before the two of them collectively made Ryan the franchise. The "Big Three" has actually, in my opinion, been superb. It's tough to win in this league, and these three have done it with aplomb. You know, with the exception of when it matters the most.
Before the season, I predicted that Atlanta would win the NFC South and multiple playoff games. And here are the unblemished Falcons, fresh off a pasting of the Philadelphia Eagles, in which they handed Andy Reid his first post-bye week loss in 14 years of coaching, and still, very few are willing to take the leap of faith. Poll any group you want; NFL executives, media types and fans remain skeptical about the Falcons' recipe for success.
Forget current "Power Rankings." They mean nothing. It's about being hot and battle-tested at the right time. And all signs point to Atlanta finally being ready when the tournament starts.
I raved in the preseason about the impact that Smith's new coordinators would have. On the defensive side, Mike Nolan has been a godsend. He's mixed up the fronts, and the defensive line is playing at its highest level since Smith took over. Cornerback Asante Samuel has become a legit NFL player again. Atlanta's defense is making plays. When I talked to Dimitroff on SiriusXM NFL Blitz this week, he explained why Nolan has made such a difference, citing the coordinator's knack for playing different defenses and "relating to the players."
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On the offensive side, Dirk Koetter replaced current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey. Both Ryan and Dimitroff have carefully chosen their words when I've talked to them about the move this season, never saying anything negative about Mularkey. But their feelings on Koetter speak volumes.
Dimitroff was correct when he said Koetter's "creativity" and how he "speaks the quarterback language" and "gets the ball to the playmakers" show how the offense has advanced. Fact is, the Falcons' offense -- with tight end Tony Gonzalez sipping from the fountain of youth, with young receiver Julio Jones' development -- is better than it was at any point before Koetter arrived.
There's also a growing sense that this team is finally ready to punch adversity in the face. Ryan told me this offseason, and again earlier this campaign, about having a different sense of urgency in practice.
"Look at the guys from 2008 (Ryan's draft class)," Dimitroff explained. "Look at the younger guys. They've reached a level of maturity and a swagger. They are working together, working hard, while having levity and keeping things in perspective."
Ryan has been excellent. His chemistry with Jones has been great. Jones, Gonzalez and Roddy White make Atlanta a force on offense. And despite the 7-0 start, the offense has room to improve even more. The running attack, Dimitroff said, can be much better -- and has to be -- in the second half of the season.
If the Falcons played in the AFC, I'd put them in the Super Bowl. But they're in the NFC, and that's a different story. The New York Giants are the Giants. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have won in Atlanta in January before. The San Francisco 49ers' defense is tremendous, and their quarterback, Alex Smith, has something Matty Ice does not: a great performance and a win in the playoffs under his belt. I'm also all in on the Chicago Bears. That defense is nasty, and Chicago showed me something by coming back from a 19-7 deficit in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers to win a game they had no business winning.
Are the Falcons tough enough to punch the Niners or Bears in the mouth? Can Ice go pound-for-pound with Rodgers or Eli Manning? Do you trust Smith against Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Lovie Smith or Jim Harbaugh, coaches who have been to the NFC title game? There is going to be a ton of pressure on Ryan to perform. It's true that the Falcons are balanced, but whoever they play in the second round of the playoffs will likely feature a better passing attack or a better defense.
I think this Atlanta team is mentally tough. But I can't wait for the Falcons to lose. I want to see them deal with some adversity, like the Giants did in Week 15 last year when they suffered their second loss to the Washington Redskins, or like the Packers did in 2010 when they almost failed to make the playoffs. Both teams, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl -- and both teams, incidentally, beat the Falcons on their way there.
In our conversation, Dimitroff echoed what Ryan told me earlier this year. He knows what's being said and how Atlanta will ultimately be judged, fairly or unfairly.
Blank has made mistakes. He turned a blind eye to Vick. Petrino was a disingenuous quitter. Blank was too loyal to Rich McKay. But eventually, Blank found the right people, who, in turn, found the right players.
Dimitroff knew he would be criticized (as he was by me) after trading for Jones on draft day in 2011. He never batted an eye. He believed in his convictions, in his scouts, and, ultimately, in the premise that Jones would be better than any receiver likely to be available in the 2012 NFL Draft. He also believed he could pluck future starters out of the second and third rounds this year, and he did.