If there’s one thing that Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith does well, it’s to learn from his mistakes.
That’s one reason why Smith is 20-3 in those increasingly rare games after his team has lost in his five seasons.
It’s also a concept that Smith is trying to put into practice now that the Falcons have secured the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
In 2010, the Falcons virtually had the NFC South title sewn up when they lost 17-14 at home to New Orleans, the defending Super Bowl champion at the time, in the second-to-last game of the season. While the Falcons secured the division title and home-field advantage in the season finale, the Falcons might have lost some momentum or confidence with that loss and three weeks later got crushed in their only playoff game, 48-21, to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
This time, Smith seems to have the Falcons peaking and is leaving nothing to chance. The Falcons are fresh off two of their most impressive victories of the season – Dec. 16’s 34-0 win over the New York Giants and Saturday’s 31-18 victory at Detroit – as they prepare for the season finale at the Georgia Dome on Sunday against the disintegrating Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs (6-9), who looked promising earlier this season, have lost five straight beginning with a loss to the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium. In addition, the Bucs have lost their last two games two teams that don’t have a winning record by a combined score of 69-13. Still, Smith wants to keep the pedal to the metal — perhaps putting to work a lesson of ’10.
“We’re going to play the game to win,” Smith told reporters at the team’s headquarters in Flowery Branch on Sunday. “That’s how we’re going to approach it. It’s an important game because it’s a division game. All games, I think, are important. In terms of the importance of it, does it have no bearing? It really does, because we want to win every time we go out and play.”
Truly, the game is meaningless, but perhaps it isn’t in the context of the Falcons’ previous playoff failures. For example, while Smith might be tempted to rest safety William Moore, a Pro-Bowl candidate who has missed his last three games with a hamstring injury, Smith sounded as if he would be willing to play Moore, only indicating that Moore’s status would be dictated by the decision of doctors.
Smith said the team does not want to play below its standards and expectation level – as it did in an embarrassing 30-20 loss at Carolina on Dec. 9 – and that it has made a commitment not to allow that to happen again. That does not sound like someone who is willing to rest his starters, potentially risking going into the playoffs on a sour note.
Smith has noted during the season that the last two Super Bowl winners have been teams that have gotten hot at the end of the season (both teams that defeated the Falcons en route to winning it) and he seems to want to try to duplicate that feat. He wants the Falcons’ firing on all cylinders and right now they are.
“We’re going to do things differently this time around during the bye week,” he said of the up-coming playoffs. “We’ll handle it differently in terms of our workload and the days we’re going to work during our bye week what our schedule is. We’re not going to do anything like we did the last time.”
By anything, presumably he’s also referring to the effort in the game itself. That performance – and the two other postseason losses during Smith’s five-year tenure — represents the albatross that this Falcons’ team will carry on its collective back.
While the Falcons would probably like to get right to work to make that performance a distant memory, but they cannot. The NFC playoff picture is a bit of a jumble so, unlike the AFC, the Falcons don’t even know which teams have qualified and, as a result, cannot begin to scout. No doubt when the playoff picture begins clear some time on Sunday night, the Falcons will eagerly get to work. Smith said this Falcons’ team is different from its predecessors and appears ready to differentiate itself from those and to prove it.
“We’re a different team every day,” he said. “But I think we’re a more mature team. Guys have experienced a lot of things together and they know how the guy next to them is going to respond so I think there is a difference and I think there is a maturity level that goes along with the experience of playing together.”
The 2010 team also played well together. Maybe the hard-learned lessons of that team will make a difference this time.