The Falcons are excited to win the NFC South title but look forward to bigger goals.
By JOHN MANASSO FS South
For the second time in three seasons the
Atlanta Falcons have captured the NFC South title and for the second time in three seasons they also have a chance to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in their conference.
At this point, it would be an upset if the Falcons (11-1) did not earn the top record in the NFC. They hold a 2½-game lead over San Francisco (8-3-1) for the top mark in the conference and a three-game lead over Green Bay (8-4) for a first-round bye.
Two more wins out of their four remaining will earn them the best record in the NFC and, right now, that seems like a good bet. On Sunday, they visit Carolina (3-9) before hosting the NFC East-leading New York Giants (7-4) the following Sunday. On Dec. 22, they visit Detroit (4-8), a team they beat last season on the road when the Lions made the playoffs, and then they finish at home against Tampa Bay (6-6). The biggest factor in earning home field would be avoiding having to play in cold weather in places like New York, Chicago or Green Bay.
Players had different reactions on Twitter at the news, which became official when Denver defeated the Buccaneers 31-23 on Sunday evening. Among the most interesting was that of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was a rookie when the team went 13-3 in 2010 and suffered a humiliating loss at home to Green Bay, a team the Falcons had defeated during the regular season but lost to the second time around, 48-21.
Weatherspoon tweeted: “The last time we won the division I was too amp! This time it's just like... Ok, now lets accomplish the nxt goal!”
That is very much head coach Mike Smith’s attitude, as the Falcons know they will be judged this season by their postseason performance, even if they finish 15-1. This will be Smith’s fourth postseason appearance in his five seasons as the Falcons’ coach, yet Atlanta is still looking for its first playoff win under Smith and quarterback
Perhaps that’s why center Todd McClure, in his 13th season, took the occasion a little less seriously.
“Watching the Denver score and all I keep thinking about is Jim Mora saying "PLAYOFFS", McClure tweeted.
But on a more serious note, he tweeted: “Just the first step in a long journey. We still have a lot of work to do. #hongry”.
In terms of a practical benefit, the Falcons will get a chance to rest some injured players — or, at least, not rush them back into the lineup because they need to win games to make the playoffs.
Chief among those injured players is starting left cornerback Asante Samuel. The four-time Pro-Bowler has an injured right shoulder and only played three snaps in Thursday’s 23-13 win over New Orleans. On Friday, Smith referred to how Samuel “knocked” his shoulder while defending a deep route on the defense’s third play from scrimmage, after which Samuel did not return.
Peria Jerry, who has started nine games this season, has missed the last two with a quad injury.
Those two are the most seriously injured players. Numerous others have nagging injuries. Weatherspoon is still listed on the injury report with an ankle that caused him to miss three games and fellow starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas was limited last week in practice with a knee.
Other players who were limited in practice last week because of injury were starting left tackle
Sam Baker (groin), wide receiver Harry Douglas (ankle), back-up tight end Michael Palmer (back), defensive tackle Vance Walker (ribs), wide receiver Kevin Cone (groin) and reserve safety Charles Mitchell (calf).
After playing on Thursday, Smith gave the players four days off, which he called a “mini-bye.” They will return to practice on Tuesday.
“Rest a couple of our guys that need to be rested,” he said on Friday. “It comes at an ideal time. We’re starting the fourth quarter of the season. Gives us an opportunity to get some guys healthy.”