After a 12-2 record, the clinched playoff berth, the likelihood of a division title, the likelihood of home field through the playoffs and several thousand more fans suddenly following Roddy White on Twitter, the Falcons may actually be close to securing their greatest achievement of all: Acceptance.
They’ve beaten New Orleans. They’ve beaten Baltimore. They’ve beaten Green Bay. If they defeat the Saints for a second time, shouldn’t that smother the lingering doubts?
They’ve won games running. They’ve won games passing. They’ve won games with their 5-foot-10 cornerback (Brent Grimes) and their 5-9 kick returner (Eric Weems) and their 35-year-old, 5-9 kicker (Matt Bryant) and, yes, maybe the winning lottery numbers.
They haven’t always been impressive. But doesn’t it say something when a team just keeps winning, like at no time in franchise history since the season it went to the Super Bowl?
Will there come a point at which everybody suddenly agrees: “OK, forget about style points and the fact Michael Vick dominates the first 27 minutes on SportsCenter. The Falcons might just be the team to beat”?
Here’s one more chance and one more national audience. The Falcons play host to New Orleans on Monday Night Football. Win this, and they’ll clinch the NFC South. They won’t have to pack a suitcase again until Super Bowl week.
Also, maybe everybody shuts up.
“I’ve said that all along that we don’t need anybody patting us on our back,” linebacker Mike Peterson said. “We’ll take that underdog role. We’ll take it all the way to Dallas.”
There are advantages to being 12-2 and having people doubt you. It keeps a team on edge. Players are less likely to get too comfortable when they’re basically being told every week that they’re a house of cards.
That happened again this week. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now of ESPN, likened the Falcons to the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs, who finished 13-3 in the regular season, only to get bounced in their first playoff game. Dilfer said he could easily foresee the Saints winning this game and then returning to the Georgia Dome in the playoffs and winning again, this despite the fact the Falcons are 19-3 under coach Mike Smith at the Dome (6-0 this year) and quarterback Matt Ryan is 19-1.
There’s at least one significant flaw in Dilfer’s comparison. Those Chiefs started 9-0, then faded in the last seven games of the regular season (4-3), allowing 90 points in losses to Denver (45-27) and Minnesota (45-20). These Falcons are on the up-tick. They have won eight straight since a blowout loss at Philadelphia.
That said, the Saints obviously are capable of winning twice here. They are 10-4 and the defending champions. These teams are long-time division rivals. Home field tends to be an afterthought. But the difference between the Falcons and the Saints — and even the Eagles, New York Giants and Chicago Bears, to a degree – is the Falcons sense they aren’t being given the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe that’s a statement on franchise history. Maybe it’s just that some of their wins haven’t been overwhelming.
Regardless, when Dilfer said what he said, White blew up on Twitter, later commenting: “I just don’t like the fact that he said that about my team. I guess we’ll have to show him. … Everybody wants to doubt us. That’s fine. We’ll just keep winning and do what we’re supposed to do. It’s not about the other teams. We feel, whether we win or lose a game, it’s really up to us.”
Three months ago, the Falcons won at New Orleans 27-24 in overtime to improve to 2-1. We wondered about potential. Now they’re 12-2 and some still are wondering. Unfair?
“That’s cool,” Grimes said. “It just gives something extra out there, not that we need it.”
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