The calendar turned to December since the Falcons last played.
It’s the time of year when big football plans start to materialize.
“It’ll be fun for the teams involved,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It ought to be fun for the fans and it’s going to be fun for the coaches. Football in December, it can’t get any better.”
The Falcons (11-1) wrapped up the NFC South title on Sunday. Denver’s 31-23 win over Tampa Bay (6-6) gave the Falcons a five-game lead with four games to play. New Orleans (5-7) is on playoff-life support and Carolina (3-9) is getting ready for next season.
The Falcons also picked up games on San Francisco (8-3-1) and Chicago (8-4) in the race for one of the top two playoffs seeds in the NFC, which come with a bye and a spot in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Falcons earned at least one home playoff game.
The playoff picture started to take shape after Sunday’s action.
In the AFC, Denver clinched the AFC West title, New England clinched the AFC East title and Houston clinched a playoff berth.
The Falcons will close out the regular season with games at Carolina at 1 p.m. Sunday, New York Giants on Dec. 16 at the Georgia Dome, at Detroit on Dec. 22 and Tampa Bay on Dec. 30 at the Georgia Dome.
If the Falcons sweep, they would have a franchise-best 15-1 mark. The 1998 Falcons, the franchise’s lone Super Bowl team, finished 14-2 under coach Dan Reeves.
The Falcons are the sixth team to start 11-1 since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule with the 1978 season. Only one of them – the 1991 Washington Redskins – went on to win the Super Bowl.
The 1984 Miami Dolphins, who started 11-1, lost in Super Bowl XIX. The 1990 San Francisco 49ers lost in the NFC championship game. The 2003 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2008 Tennessee Titans lost in the division round.
The Falcons, after replacing their coordinators this offseason, have stormed to their second division title in the last three seasons. The Falcons went 13-3 in 2010, won the division title and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Dirk Koetter took over from Mike Mularkey, who was named the head coach in Jacksonville. Mike Nolan, who coached with Smith back in their Baltimore days, replaced Brian VanGorder as the defensive coordinator.
They have won with basically the same personnel executing new schemes.
“It makes me realize that we have a very good football team and we have had a good football team since we’ve gotten here,” Smith said. “It’s a maturation process that you go through as you put a team together and you build.”
Smith also points to the team’s veterans for setting the tone as some of the younger players, like safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, have blossomed.
Moore had a monster game against the Saints with 11 tackles and two interceptions. He played the marauding style of football that the Falcons envisioned when they selected him with a second-round pick in 2009.
DeCoud has a career high five interceptions.
Moore and DeCoud have combined for 10 turnovers – nine interceptions and one forced fumble – which have resulted in 30 points. They are responsible for nearly half of Atlanta’s 24 takeways this season.
“We’ve got some really good leaders,” Smith said. “You reflect back on the 12 games that we’ve played and one of the things you realize is that we’re a resilient team. We don’t blink. We focus on the next play. When you do that, you’re going to have a chance to be successful.”
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