Falcons can soar after playoff failures

There’s smoke everywhere. Everywhere! After about 90 minutes of choking in Smokeville, I start coughing periodically. Furthermore, I notice of couple of guys on the crew coughing, too.

It’s SmokeGate!

The head photographer tells me it’s mental, because the smoke from a smoke machine doesn’t actually make you cough. Tell that to my bag of Hall’s, pal, because my throat is still on fire and I keep reaching for eye drops as I write this.

Oh, the things a girl will do to profile the Atlanta Falcons for Sunday’s "The NFL on FOX" pregame show.

I had such a blast watching the expressions on the players’ faces, their mouths agape and all, as they walked in the door and exclaimed, ”Is that smoke?!”

I literally doubled over when Falcons coach Mike Smith comes along and takes in all the sights. There are also a million spotlights everywhere. The lights danced off a backdrop of black curtains draped around the room.

“What the . . . ’’ Smith said. He did NOT attempt to add a third word, by the way. I’m with you, brother.

But it looked great. Cool. Hazy. I’m thankful because I’ve shown up for shoots where the lighting was about as flattering as "The Blair Witch Project."

Wanna talk some ‘ball now? After we all recovered, we talked about Julio Jones, dirtbags and Sunday’s playoff showdown at the Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX).

In trying to figure out what kind of playoff team the Falcons might be, is last year’s divisional-round loss to the Packers the best barometer? That’s the image most people have because it’s the freshest, and for the franchise, the most devastating. They were beaten by 27 points. Or how about the 2008 loss to the Arizona Cardinals (30-24), the coming-out party for the first-year coach Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan?

“Everybody was kind of fresh, new,’’ Ryan said. "I think everybody was just excited to be there and we weren’t really tested as we are this year. We’ve dealt with scrutiny. We’ve dealt with good wins, all those kinds of things. (We) kind of handle it in stride.”

I asked Tony Gonzalez if there was much talk around the team’s practice facility about that game, any look-backs, pep talks as to what could have happened. But he indicated he hadn’t heard a thing. The halls have been silent on that front in Flowery Branch, Ga. Gonzalez believes the Falcons (10-6) are an even better team than the one that went 13-3 last season. They have just proven themselves to be inconsistent.

“It was tough," Gonzalez said. "But after that game, everybody kind of looked at themselves and said, `Hey, we’re a good football team, and we’re all coming back next year. We have a chance to be better.’ ”

Gonzalez indeed will be back with the Falcons next year, having recently signed a one-year extension, but he hopes the early-exit madness that’s been his playoff life ends on Sunday. Four trips in 1997, 2003, 2006, 2010 were all defeats for Gonzalez’s Chiefs and Falcons teams. Sunday will be his fifth try at a postseason win. That’s a mighty long time for a 15-year veteran to keep hope alive. Just ask Detroit’s Jason Hanson, who’s been waiting 20 years for a playoff victory.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a rookie who doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Julio Jones told me he doesn’t like to look at the scoreboard. Good thing there are plenty of people around him who know what the score is and how much time’s left on the clock.

The Falcons have bet the farm on Jones. The team famously moved up 21 spots in last year’s draft and gave Cleveland five draft picks in return for the Alabama star wideout. Confident, yet humble to the core, he’s a Ray Lewis-style player and he credits his teammates for helping lift his burdens on the field.

"Tony, Roddy and Matt, they make it so much easier for me to make those big plays and everything," Jones said. "They take so much pressure off me. I just feel like I just got to go out there and play. Just go out there and have fun and fly around. I’m not scared of anything."

Well, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been controversy. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck called Atlanta’s offensive linemen a bunch of “dirtbags” in what was otherwise a very civil week between polar-opposite teams.

Gonzalez said what Tuck is complaining about — downfield blocks by the Falcons’ offensive lineman — are part of the game. Smith and Ryan were in agreement and jumped to the defense of their offensive lineman.

“Clean players?” I asked Smith.

“They are,’’ Smith said. "(They) play the way the game’s supposed to be played. They are passionate, energetic and they love to play the game.”

"They’re not dirtbags,’’ Ryan chimed in. "They are really, really good guys. But when they get on the field they play hard and they’ve got great passion for the game. I’m glad I have all five of those guys in front of me.”

Ryan (third attempt), Smith (third) and especially Tony Gonzalez (fifth) are hoping their first playoff win will come at the expense of Tuck and the rest of the Giants.

The Falcons believe they’ve lived and learned enough to get to the next level.

The haze of playoffs defeats gone by has all but since cleared.

For Pam’s complete interview with the Falcons, tune in Sunday to NFL on FOX for America’s No. 1 pregame show at noon ET/9 a.m. PT.