ATLANTA – The next four weeks of the regular season for the rest of the NFL are now four weeks of preseason for the Falcons.
At 11-1 following a convincing 23-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons are now just one more win or a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss away from clinching the NFC South. A postseason berth isn't quite a fait accompli, but it's about as close as these things get in Week 13.
And that means it's time to talk about the elephant in the Georgia Dome: the fact that one of the most talented teams in the NFL hasn't managed to win a single playoff game in three trips under the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan regime.
The Falcons haven't won a playoff game since the 2004 season, back when they were quarterbacked by a guy named Michael Vick. Center Todd McClure is the only player remaining from that squad, two generations gone in NFL time.
Since then, Atlanta has suffered through the nightmare of Vick's self-destruction, the embarrassment of having their then-head coach (Bobby Petrino) walk out on them with three games left in the season, and the hope that comes with a new coach, GM and multiple-threat offense. It's all come together in 2012, and you couldn't lay down a wider, softer, redder carpet for this team to stride on into the postseason.
For a few weeks early in the season, it appeared Atlanta would trip over its own feet as it walked down that carpet. The team racked up win after win, some decisive, some ugly. But even as the specter of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins rose up in connection with this squad, as it always does when a team reaches the halfway mark undefeated, there were still questions about Atlanta's toughness and complaints from within the team about a lack of respect.
"Is the national media making a big deal about us like they would if it was Philly, Green Bay or New England?" Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez griped after the team's seventh straight win. "No, they're not."
The reason is simple: when you've failed time after time in the playoffs, most recently an ugly loss to the Giants in which the offense couldn't score a single point, everybody not wearing red and black is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Thursday night's game showed why the Falcons could be a serious threat in January … and also why they could keep Ryan's winless postseason streak alive.
Atlanta scored within the game's first four minutes on the strength of Michael Turner's legs and added another touchdown at the start of the second quarter as Ryan connected with Gonzalez in the heart of the end zone. A Matt Bryant field goal kick later, and the Falcons were up 17-0 halfway through the second and looking like a college team trying to run up the score to impress voters.
Getting a Drew Brees-led team down is one thing. Keeping it down is another, and with a 17-point lead, Atlanta seemed to slacken on defense, and Brees marched the Saints straight down the field for seven. A three-and-out by Atlanta, 64 yards of Brees passing, and suddenly the Saints were inside Atlanta's 10-yard line and poised to close the gap to a field goal.
But then things turned back in Atlanta's favor. The normally hyper-competent Brees lost track of the clock, and the Saints watched the half expire as they sat on Atlanta's 3.
In the second half, Brees would throw three of his five interceptions, effectively gift-wrapping the game for the Falcons. And while Atlanta could only manage two more field goals, that would be enough to hold up. Atlanta not only survived the challenge of a division rival, it did so on national television with a performance that, if not definitive, was at least decisive.
"I am relieved we got the win [Thursday] night in spite of how the offense played [Thursday] night," WR Roddy White said. "We were able to ride the momentum created from the defensive side of the ball. I have to give our defense a lot of credit because they performed on a high level from the outset of the game to the end."
And if Atlanta is going to make any noise in the postseason, this is exactly how it will happen: with one segment of the team picking up the slack when the other falters. It's worked several times so far this season; unlike Brees, Ryan escaped his own five-interception game with a victory against the Cardinals two weeks ago. Winning pretty is nice for the highlights package, but winning ugly is how you survive and advance.
When asked if he was ready for the postseason to hurry up and get here, Ryan smiled as he gave the predictable answer.
"We try not to think that far ahead," he said. "One of the things I've learned in my five years [in the NFL] is that if you're worrying about what you're going to do in January in September, October, November, December, you're wasting your time."
But he allowed that it's time to start thinking in that direction.
"I've tried to keep that week-to-week focus, but at the same time we've had some sour tastes in our mouths at the end of the last couple of seasons. So hopefully we'll have an opportunity to change that."
That's standard jock-speak right there; of course the Falcons will have the opportunity to change their fortunes. Will they succeed? That's the key question, and until Atlanta starts posting January wins, the nonbelievers will far outnumber the faithful.
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