At this point of the season a year ago, the Falcons had won eight straight games, were 12-2 and tied with New England for the NFL’s best record, had beaten New Orleans, Baltimore and Green Bay and generally looked like anything but a team that could lose its first playoff game by 27 points — which, of course, they did.
There’s an obvious byproduct to having a season suddenly going down like Pompeii. People stop assuming what comes next.
Which brings us to the 2011 Falcons. More people probably project them as a first-round playoff exit than a Super Bowl contender. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Athletes feed off external doubt, and the “Green Bay did it, so can we” thing is slowly evolving into this group’s rallying cry. (The Packers entered the playoffs last year as a NFC’s sixth seed and proceeded to obliterate all in their path, beginning with the Falcons.)
“All of our goals are still in front of us,” running back Michael Turner said following Thursday’s 41-14 dismembering of Jacksonville. “All we can ask for is to get in the tournament, and then we’ll take it from there. We saw what happened last year with Green Bay.”
The Falcons are 9-5. They will get into the playoffs. They’ve had more than a few hiccups this season but have rebounded nicely. After losing to Houston and getting humiliated for one half at Carolina (combined six-quarter slouch: opponents 40, Falcons 17), they rallied to beat the Panthers and bury Jacksonville (combined six-quarter bounce-back: Falcons 65, opponents 14).
A stronger sense of how real this awakening is will come next Monday night, when the Falcons play at New Orleans. But there’s certainly no reason to think this team can’t go on a special run. It was a talented group with a veteran core before this season started, and it remains that.
“We like the [playoff] position we’re in because we feel like we can take our show on the road and win,” wide receiver Roddy White said. “We’re built to run the ball and play-action pass and get the ball to [the receivers] on the outside. We don’t break. We know we just have be consistent to win games. Carolina definitely was a wake-up call for us. It took two quarters to wake up, but we learned. You never want to be down 23-7 but it’s good to see what your team can do when that happens. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
The Falcons have clinched their fourth straight winning season Thursday. It speaks to general expectations that that was an afterthought. They know they need some measure of postseason success because one-and-dones get old real quick with a jaded fan base.
But there are positive signs. Matt Ryan is on target again. Receivers aren’t dropping passes. The defense is starting to get more pressure. There are fewer missed tackles. Sean Weatherspoon is an emerging star. The team hasn’t had a turnover in the last two weeks.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff was concerned about his team for several weeks, but he’s starting to see light now.
“Mike has echoed this, and we’ve been very clear: We expect much more consistency given the talent of this football team and the talent of this coaching staff,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we had some moments of inconsistency. But we really believe now we’re starting to get our feet underneath us and we’re starting to play some fundamentally sound football.
“I’m seeing accomplished assignments. I’m seeing focus. I’m seeing finish.”
A little swagger also may be coming back. When asked his thoughts on the New Orleans game, White smiled and said, “We’re going to win.”
So he’s guaranteeing that?
“I don’t guarantee victories,” he said. “But we’re going to win.”
That certainly would alter perceptions.
By Jeff Schultz