Surprising Falcons want to make most of playoff opportunity

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The excitement surrounding the Atlanta Falcons' unexpected run to the playoffs stems mostly from the rapid rise from the ruins of 2007, checkered by quarterback Michael Vick's dog-fighting imprisonment and then-coach Bobby Petrino's Dear John departure.

But the devolution of the franchise started well before that, not long after a berth in the NFC Championship Game after the 2004 season sent expectations off the chart. The roster wasn't as good as those who built it thought. Players didn't manage success well -- much like Cleveland this season -- and everything eventually unraveled.

The Falcons (11-5), who haven't had a winning season since 2004, are now in the playoffs with a new general manager, a first-time head coach and a vastly overhauled roster. They've fused together something unforeseen -- just like four seasons ago. Back in '04, Jim Mora was the hot first-time head coach and Vick was the well-compensated and adored quarterback of the future.

That brief bit of history resonates now inside a locker room where two dozen players -- 10 of them starters -- will be making their playoff debut Saturday at NFC West champion Arizona.

"That's a message we're trying to get to them," said Pro Bowl tailback Michael Turner, who has been to the playoffs before with the Chargers -- as the No. 2 tailback. "Nothing's guaranteed. Just because we made the playoffs our first year being together doesn't mean we're going to be back next year of three years down the line. We have to make the most of this opportunity right now."

In other words, this rare Falcons postseason appearance better not be a one-stop affair.

As Turner said, three years down the line, things could look vastly different. Just as it did four years ago when the Falcons made their last playoff appearance.

Only three starters -- center Todd McClure, right tackle Todd Weiner and outside linebacker Keith Brooking -- remain from the lineup Atlanta started on Jan. 23, 2005, when the Falcons lost to Philadelphia 27-10 in the NFC title game.

"You don't realize how hard it is to get back," Jenkins said. "My rookie year we went to the NFC Championship Game and you think it would happen more often. Then it doesn't. You never know when you are getting back."

The radical retooling of rosters and coaching staff over four seasons is more common than not. There are only six starters from the Eagles team that faced Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game in the lineup that thrashed the Cowboys 44-6 last Sunday.

That's why building for the future might be the most overstated goal in professional sports.

Pieces are often put in place, but the coaches or management that put them there might not get the chance to see the process through. Injuries, salary-cap issues, a breakdown in chemistry or off-field indiscretions re-adjust those long-term ambitions.

The Falcons' roster is far from ideal. Their talent is young or old and their best players -- other than John Abraham and Roddy White -- played backup to LaDainian Tomlinson last season (Turner) or is a rookie (Ryan). There could be significant turnover once this season ends, especially on defense, where Brooking, a Falcons lifer for 11 seasons, Milloy and linebacker Michael Boley, a fringe Pro Bowler last season who lost his zeal and his job to Wire, are likely gone.

That reality hasn't set in yet because players said they've reached this far because, as Jenkins said, "They have a special camaraderie." That's why the Falcons, or any other team in the playoffs, for that matter, have to maximize the present.

Five of the six NFC playoff teams didn't qualify for the postseason in 2007. Call it parity of other teams capitalizing on other teams' misfortune. One hit, one arrest or one blown opportunity can, as Falcons' end John Abraham said, "cause a seven-month bye week."

Do you think Green Bay, New Orleans, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, the New York Jets or New England -- teams that had seemingly solid blue-prints in place -- thought they'd be sharing the same fate as St. Louis, Detroit or Oakland? They may have had better records and less drama, but what good has that done?

It's a message being preached in a Falcons locker room, where a businesslike approach has allowed players to stay focused, never go on an extended losing streak, and accelerate their push to the playoffs.

Still, a lot of Falcons players are excited to be here.

The playoffs have some of those who endured nothing but the rough times from 2005-2007, like running back Jerious Norwood, who claim they've never been this excited. That's why Smith, a first-year head coach but a playoff veteran -- he was on Baltimore's staff during their Super Bowl run among other postseason showings -- is trying to keep things as normal as possible.

That is hard to do, though. Not just because so many players will be dipping their toes into playoff waters for the first time, but because so many players know they have a chance to do something they might not get to do again -- at least with the Falcons.

"A lot of people that haven't been in the situation are going to get hit in the face pretty hard," Abraham said. "It's a serious experience."

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