DETROIT – The schedule says there is a game left. The coach, Mike Smith, says, “We’ve said all along that if there’s games left to be played, we’re going to play them to win.” (And in his head, he probably adds: “Even if we play them with Luke McCown.”)
But this is the reality: Nobody is thinking about Game 16 against Tampa Bay. It’s about what happens in three weeks and that’s where everybody’s thoughts are. There’s no pressure to win the regular season finale next Sunday, no requirement to play in the first round of the playoffs, no pressure to jazz up the resume.
“We’ve done everything we can,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said late Saturday night following his team’s 31-18 win over Detroit, which secured a bye and the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. “Now we just have to go do it.” In the playoffs, he means.
Imagine being outfitted with the best ski equipment and taking four months of lessons, then one day being dropped at the top of a mountain and being told, “Try to get to the bottom without wiping out.”
That’s where the Falcons are today.
They’re 13-2. They can walk to the finish line of the regular season. Two weeks ago, they wowed skeptics and believers with a 34-0 win over New York. In Detroit, rather than suffer from the kind of emotional blahs that have plagued them, they jumped out to a 21-3 lead, endured some bumps in the third quarter (as Calvin Johnson took a wrecking ball to the NFL record book) and then pulled away in the fourth.
Blank is right. The Falcons have done all they can do. Now, it’s just a matter of validating their record.
They won’t know their opponent for two weeks. But after quick exits in 2008 (Arizona), 2010 (Green Bay) and 2011 (New York), their focus is, and should be, more on themselves. The words, “It’s not about them, it’s about us,” might as well be stamped on their foreheads.
“Going into the Giants game, we knew a lot of questions were going to be answered,” Tony Gonzalez said. “I think that day we realized how good we can be. Maybe we even surprised ourselves a little. But that helped us. The focus that we had that week of practice was the same focus we had in preparation for (Detroit). And yes, we’ve been here before. We’ve had a top seed. We’ve had a bye. It doesn’t mean anything. But this time we’ll come out focused and ready to roll.”
Safety Thomas DeCoud viewed the Lions game as another test passed. “We proved we can carry over from a really big win. We had a lights-out game against New Orleans but then just went through the motions against Carolina. It’s nice to know we can get this out of our system.”
There were some concerns before this game. Linebacker Mike Peterson, one of the team’s emotional leaders, walked into the locker room following warmups and sensed it was too quiet. So he banged two cymbals together, figuratively speaking.
“He riled us up,” Roddy White said.
Peterson smiled when asked about his pregame antics. He was the one who marched the team out of the tunnel and right through the Lions’ quasi-blockade for warmups in Detroit last season.
“They wanted to be relaxed,” he said. “When you’ve had success one game, the natural thing is to feel like you’ve made it. So I was just trying to keep the guys up, let them know what’s at stake.”
The Falcons started fast. Matt Ryan attacked early and often, completing his first 12 attempts and 15 of 16. He threw for 279 yards and four touchdowns. In the last two games, he is 48 for 60 passing (including 22 straight completions) for 549 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. The MVP candidacy just circled back.
Detroit’s defense focused on stopping Gonzalez (one catch). So White and Julio Jones (15 catches, 224 yards, three touchdowns combined) destroyed them.
Defensively, the Falcons gave up a ton of yards (522). Matthew Stafford threw for 443, more than half of that to Johnson (11 for 225). But the Lions reached the end zone only once, going one for four in the red zone. That’s why they’re 4-11. That’s why the Falcons are 13-2.
Said Ryan, “When you have a combination of guys who are committed to doing everything the right way, you have fun doing it.”
This much we know: The backdrop is impressive.
By Jeff Schultz
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