In their final game of the regular season, the Falcons face an opponent with a record of 2-13 that has been outscored by a cartoon-like margin of 174 points and already has fired its head coach (if John Fox seems a little detached Sunday, that’s why).
There are 31 NFL teams and then there are the Carolina Panthers, who exist largely to make the Buffalo Bills feel good about themselves and provide the rest of us comic relief.
Can this be that easy?
Six days after losing to the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons can render that result meaningless by beating the worst team in football. A win over the Panthers in the Georgia Dome gives them everything they wanted to accomplish in the regular season: 1) a return to the playoffs (already secured); 2) the NFC South Division title; 3) the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
All they have to do is step over this corpse without tripping – and hope that some hand doesn’t punch through the dirt and grab them, like in the final scene of “Carrie.”
Coaches, by nature, are a paranoid lot. They hate games like this. Sports is the greatest, kookiest reality show because it yields so few automatics. It follows that Falcons coach Mike Smith probably has spent most of this week worrying about what might go wrong. Like: What if a sinkhole opens right where Matt Ryan is standing?
But if there’s something the Falcons have shown in the Smith-Thomas Dimitroff era, it’s that they’re generally an emotionally stable lot and they respond well to adversity – if the loss to the Saints even qualifies as adversity.
If you’re looking for a reason why the Falcons could go far in this postseason, that’s the biggest one. Traditionally successful playoff teams like New England and Pittsburgh have something other than talent and intelligence: They have resolve and aren’t prone to emotional ups and downs.
“Your level of resiliency increases and improves the longer you play in this league,” said Dimitroff, who spent several years with the Patriots. “It becomes easier to bounce back from things. That’s a testament to maturing and coaching. I’ve been very impressed with how we respond to things.”
It was almost amusing to see how some fans panicked over the Falcons’ 17-14 loss to New Orleans. It was a one-play game, and the Falcons had a few one-play moments that went wrong (starting with a Michael Turner fumble at the New Orleans’ 3). Fact is, that game answered more questions about the team in a positive way than it did create doubt, Dimitroff said.
“I want to be careful about saying this,” he said, not wanting to suggest he was happy about the defeat. “But going into that game, there were a number of members of the national media suggesting we didn’t have much of a chance [in the postseason] because our defense would come up short. I was very encouraged by what I saw. Everybody thought it was an off night for the offense, but I’m not concerned about that because we can rebound offensively. We lost the game. But let’s just say that if our offense had produced more points and our defense had allowed more, it would’ve been less comforting.”
Still, Dimitroff isn’t assuming victory over Carolina. He said the Panthers will play relaxed because they have nothing to lose. When asked if he could relate to a situation where something was expected to go a certain way and things went horribly wrong, he cracked, “There was that time when I had expectations of landing that 360 [on a snowboard] and landed on my head. That didn’t work out.”
But don’t expect that to happen Sunday. The Falcons appear closer to the 360 than the faceplant.
– By Jeff Schultz
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