FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
With Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith being the sane man that he is, he is trying a different approach than the one he took two years ago, when the Falcons also earned the NFC’s top seed for the postseason.
First, Smith said that during the bye week he increased the amount of work the Falcons did on the field, as opposed to two years ago when eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay unceremoniously dispatched the Falcons at the Georgia Dome 48-21 after the Falcons mostly used that first week for rest.
“We really need to get some work done and stay focused on doing the things we’re going to have to do on the football field during the game,” Smith said.
Smith said he thinks the extra work will help the Falcons improve their timing and fundamentals as they approach their opponent on Jan. 13, be it Minnesota, Seattle or Washington.
But on top of a different approach, the Falcons have other reasons to believe that this time around will prove different from not only two years ago but also from the Falcons’ other two postseason appearances under Smith – all of which have ended without a victory, a reality that has left many doubting Atlanta as it enters the playoffs.
The Falcons’ talking points – from Smith almost unilaterally down to the last player — have been that they are a more mature team. In numerous ways, this is true. But they also are qualitatively better ways, too.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, in his fifth season, has had his most prolific one in terms of passing yards under first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter, whom several NFL teams wanted to talk about becoming their head coach until he signed a contract extension to stay in Atlanta. The Falcons’ lacked a second deep threat, which they corrected after that loss to the Packers by trading up in the ensuing draft to take Julio Jones, a first-time Pro-Bowler this season.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the sole defensive player to have the device in his helmet that lets him communicate with his coordinator, was a rookie and complimentary player in 2010 but had a Pro-Bowl caliber season in 2012 (even if he didn’t get the invite to Hawaii). This week Weatherspoon said he feels a lot more confident in both himself and his teammates.
Additionally, the Falcons have a beefed-up and more experienced secondary. Thomas DeCoud was a second-year starter in ’10; this year, his six interceptions tied for fifth in the NFL and ranked second among safeties. Fellow safety William Moore was a first-year starter in ’10 whereas this season (provided he is healthy enough to play, as he missed the final four regular season games) he generated four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Also, in nickel corner Robert McClain, the Falcons have arguably their best player in Smith’s five seasons in Atlanta at that position.
“All those guys are not pups anymore,” Falcons veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said, also mentioning defensive tackles Corey Peters, a rookie in ’10, and Vance Walker, now in his fourth season. “They’re not little babies. These guys are seasoned veterans and they know what it takes to go out there and play well and I think that’s the biggest difference. I think that’s definitely going to help us get over that hump.”
Significantly, there also is the key acquisition of four-time Pro-Bowler Asante Samuel, a two-time Super Bowl winner with New England whose presence cannot be under-rated. Samuel has a flair for the big play, as he proved in a pivotal December game against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants when he intercepted a pass deep in New York’s territory on the game’s second play from scrimmage, setting the tone for a 34-0 Falcons’ win.
“Yeah, you know what I do,” Samuel said of the big stage. “I go out and do my thing. I bring what I am. You know what that is.”
While the Falcons might be an improved team over last year’s 10-6 squad and also the ’10 team that had an identical 13-3 record to this one, the way their season played out ingrained even more doubts in some. They started off 8-0 but went 5-3 in the second half – good but not the stuff champions are made of.
The issue in some of those second-half losses – incidentally, all of them came against fellow NFC South opponents – was a lack of focus, a shortcoming that is unlikely to befall them a week from Sunday.
So which team are they?
“I would say we’re that 8-0 team,” DeCoud said. “I think we kind of got going into that ninth game, we got a little fat and happy and it jumped up and bit us. Now we’re a mature enough team to know what that feels like and to know how to remedy that when we feel it coming on and I think the sky’s the limit for us in the postseason.”