The Falcons whiffed on their first three tries, but now they’re back as the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a 13-3 record for the second time in three years.
Any reason to think this time will be different?
“It’s a more determined attitude,” running back Michael Turner said. “We know nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed.”
The Falcons learned as much the last two years, getting blown out at home by Green Bay and failing to score an offensive point in an ugly road loss to the New York Giants.
Those embarrassments, as well as the playoff defeat at Arizona four years ago, gave the Falcons a reputation as underachievers.
“We’ve got a zero in the win column in the postseason and until we get that rectified, they have some right in saying what they’re saying,” free safety Thomas DeCoud said. “But I think if we come out and play hard and play sound, I think we’ll get that first playoff win.”
Smith, now in his fifth season, made several changes to the approach he used when Atlanta earned a bye in 2010, deciding this time to schedule a 75-minute session on the field each day and lessen time in the film room.
Because the Falcons won’t know their opponent until today, Smith wanted his players to concentrate solely on improving their craft.
For offensive players, the focus was to improve the timing of pass routes, blocking in the run game and the protection of quarterback Matt Ryan.
Defensive players worked on refining their techniques after last week’s loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin broke off three gains totaling 83 yards as the Falcons failed to get off blocks and took improper pursuit angles to the ball.
“That’s at the core of what you have to do to be successful in football,” Smith said. “That’s what we need to work on. We don’t have to worry about scheming this week, so we can really focus in on the fundamentals: tackling, blocking, running, catching. That’s what our emphasis is this week.”
The light week is giving three defensive starters — end John Abraham, cornerback Dunta Robinson and strong safety William Moore — extra time to recover from injuries.
Abraham (left ankle) and Robinson (concussion) were both hurt against Tampa Bay. Moore hasn’t played since straining his hamstring against New Orleans five weeks ago, but Ryan is confident all three players will be ready when Atlanta hosts either No. 4 seed Washington, No. 5 seed Seattle or sixth-seeded Minnesota on Jan. 13.
“The one thing that I think has helped us is regardless of what’s happened during the week with guys practicing or not practicing, we’ve been pretty close to 100 percent almost every game,” Ryan said. “Our guys have been out there flying around. That’s helped me a ton. I think our timing has stayed pretty consistent throughout the year.”
Throughout the locker room, players cited maturity as the top reason this year’s playoffs won’t be a bust.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s No. 2 career leader in receptions, said second-year receiver Julio Jones, third-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers are not “pups anymore.”
“They’re not little babies,” Gonzalez said. “These guys are seasoned veterans, and they know what it takes to go out and play well, and I think that’s the biggest difference. I think that’s definitely going to help us get over the hump.”
Gonzalez, who owns every meaningful league record for tight ends, nearly retired after last year’s loss at New York before deciding to return. He believed then, and still insists, that the Falcons have all the resources to win a Super Bowl.
Equally enticing for Gonzalez was the chance to win a playoff game for the first time in his 16-year career. He was 0-3 with Kansas City, and is 0-2 in Atlanta.
“I think about it all the time, honestly. I’d be lying to you (otherwise),” Gonzalez said. “This is why I came back, to get through the regular season and get to this point, because I was going to retire last year. But this is why you play the game, and you always think about what you’ve gone through in the past and the tough, heartbreaking losses that I’ve had in the playoffs. Hopefully it is for a reason.”
The Falcons made three big moves in the offseason to improve their postseason malaise.
Last January, Smith hired Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator and Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. In April, general manager Thomas Dimitroff traded for cornerback Asante Samuel.
An 8-0 start showed the players that Nolan and Koetter were deserving of their trust. Samuel’s loud swagger enlivened practices for a defense that needed to boost its intensity.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride. The Falcons looked sloppy in losing at New Orleans, at Carolina and to Tampa Bay in the second half of the season. But they were efficient and nearly mistake-free in beating the Giants 34-0 in Week 15 and winning at Detroit six days later.
Regardless of their opponent, the Falcons will need better production from Turner, who is averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry. The team also must shore up its run defense, which has given up a league-high eight rushes of 40 yards or more.
“We know the time is now,” Turner said. “This is how you answer all critics and what they’ve got to say about you by going out there and winning.”