FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are closing in on the NFC South title. Just don’t tell that to coach Mike Smith.
“We’ve got to concern ourselves with what we can do and what we can control,” Smith said Monday after taking the team through an evening walk-through in the Falcons’ indoor facility. “We have to go out and do what we do as a football team and try to take care of the things we can control and not worry about the things that are going on around the league.”
The Falcons (10-1) hold a four-game lead over the Bucs (6-5) with five to play. New Orleans (5-6) and Carolina (2-8 before a Monday night game in Philadelphia) are in the basement.
The Falcons can wrap up the NFC South title with a win over the Saints on Thursday and an ensuing Denver victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. Under that scenario, the Falcons would be 11-1 with a five-game lead over the 6-6 Bucs with four games to play.
Don’t expect the Falcons to begin sitting their starters either. They want to earn the NFC’s No. 1 or No. 2 seed in order to earn first-round bye.
The Falcons, who have been knocked out of the playoffs in their first game of their last three postseasons, have noticed the last few Super Bowl winning teams have begun heating up in December and January.
“Ten-and-one is great, but I’ll tell you what I’ve said since the beginning of the season: We’re just jockeying for position,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football.”
The Falcons caught the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers in the playoffs the past two seasons. Both teams drubbed Atlanta and then went on to win the Super Bowl.
In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals also made a late-season move, knocked out the Falcons in the wild-card round and rode the momentum to the Super Bowl.
“Right around this time is when you want to start gelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs, because that’s the most important thing” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter what your record is. You just want to be playing some good football come playoff time and right now, we’ve got to hopefully put something together and try to get that home-field advantage.”
The Falcons have won seven games by seven points or less this season. They are not dominating teams and have repeatedly stated that they can play better.
With the one-point win over the Buccaneers Sunday, the Falcons improved to 7-1 in games decided by one score this season. The seven wins by seven or fewer points is tied with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts for the most such wins during a 10-1 or 11-0 start, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Falcons don’t seem to mind the cliff-hanger nature of most of their games.
“When you win close games like that, it’s only a positive,” Gonzalez said. “Knowing that you can come up with plays when you have to and the defense stepped up when they had to, offense stepped up when they had to. Our special teams weren’t working like we wanted to as far as the kicking game goes, (but) we just kind of have each others’ backs and that’s all it does: It keeps your confidence going forward.”
In all, the Falcons are comfortable with their position.
“We feel really good where we are at,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “We’ve got a game coming up against the Saints on Thursday night and that’s going to be a big one for us in the division.”
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