By Michael Cunningham
Standing in the locker room after his team defeated the Cowboys late Sunday night, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez couldn’t quite sell the idea that his team’s national reputation is irrelevant to the players.
Gonzalez said it doesn’t matter that the Falcons don’t seem to get accolades befitting their 8-0 record, a mark that historically has meant good odds to reach the Super Bowl. A few beats later, however, Gonzalez acknowledges that players check out game highlights to see “how the media is recognizing you, whether if it’s good or bad.”
Gonzalez muses that he “can’t wait to see from all of the [media] outlets if they are just going to make it about the Cowboys’ underachieving or are they going to say the Falcons are a good team.”
But ultimately Gonzalez acknowledged that skepticism of the Falcons is not without cause.
“We haven’t had success in the playoffs, so everybody’s like. ‘Oh, same story, they’re good during the regular seasons, so let’s not make a big deal out of it because they’re going to lose in the playoffs,’” he said. “I understand why, but it’s up to us to keep doing what we’ve been doing, put all that noise out of our minds.”
To be sure, the “noise” doesn’t matter much in real terms. This isn’t college football, where public perception can influence the polls and thus the chance for teams to play for a national championship. If the Falcons make the playoffs, they can win a championship.
Still, as Gonzalez said, players tend to like positive attention from media. Falcons fans want to feel good about their team and, no doubt, brag about them.
As the Falcons keep winning to remain the only undefeated team in the NFL, a few national pundits give them respect.
“We talk about model franchises — and New England and Pittsburgh for the last decade or so, people have said they are the model franchises — I’m going to put Atlanta in that category right now, too,” NBC “Sunday Night Football” broadcaster Al Michaels said.
His colleague in the studio, Tony Dungy, has been a consistent Falcons booster — with a caveat.
“I believe,” Dungy said Sunday, “but they’ve got to win a playoff game first.”
The Falcons haven’t been able to do it in their past three tries. That’s at the root of why the betting public doubts them and national media gravitate to other contenders.
The sports books generally have the Falcons as the seventh choice to win the Super Bowl. They have longer championship odds than four other NFC teams: the 49ers, Packers, Giants and Bears.
“The Giants are a football team that is better than Atlanta,” Fox NFL studio analyst Terry Bradshaw said before Sunday’s games. “They’re better offensively and defensively, and I would go so far as to say that the 49ers are, too.”
The betting odds for the Falcons don’t match up with the history of 8-0 teams.
Since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule, beginning with the 1978 season, 14 other teams won their first eight games. Nine of those teams played in the Super Bowl and six won it.
Then again, four of the teams lost their first playoff game, including the 2011 Packers. Yet Green Bay still gets the benefit of the doubt because it won it all two seasons ago, defeating a 13-win Falcons team in the Georgia Dome along the way.
Clearly the Falcons need a postseason run such as recent ones by the 49ers, Packers and Giants to earn notice. And it’s not just recent history that helps fuel skepticism of the Falcons.
Teams such as the Giants, Packers and Bears have played since early in the 20th century. Their trophy cases are full of championships spanning different decades.
Since starting play in 1966, the Falcons have had more seasons with four victories or fewer (12) than seasons that concluded in the playoffs (11). They lost their only appearance in the Super Bowl.
“We are not like the darlings of the NFL,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said in explaining the relative lack of attention for his team.
They don’t have to be to win a Super Bowl.
“Who cares? We are just going to keep racking up ‘W’s …,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “It doesn’t matter what people say, what they think about us. We just keep finding ways to win. We are going to keep doing that.
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