Column: Falcons are content just winning, baby

Al Davis would’ve loved these Atlanta Falcons.

All they do is win, baby.

Sure, it’s rarely with a lot of flare.

Who cares?

There’s no voters to impress or computers to win over in the

NFL.

”Style points don’t get you a ring,” linebacker Mike Peterson

was saying the other day, holding court beside his locker before

practice. ”Our goal is way bigger than pleasing the media or

winning with style points. We’ve got some hefty goals. Everyone

knows about them.”

For this team, it’s Super Bowl or bust.

With each grind-it-out win – seven of the triumphs on their 11-1

mark have been by seven points or less – the Falcons are looking

more and more like a team that can finally bring the A-T-L its

first Super Bowl championship. Don’t listen to the skeptics, who

seem to think the inability to blow out teams is a sign of

vulnerability.

The Falcons are perfectly content to win by one or two or three

points, as they should be, especially when they see what happened

this past week. The 49ers losing at St. Louis. The Super Bowl

champion Giants falling to Washington. The Bears getting tripped up

at home by Seattle.

Just win, baby.

”There’s no doormats in this league,” offensive guard Justin

Blalock points out. ”If you’re not playing well, you can be made

to look pretty stupid in any game. They’re not all going to be

pretty. But we do our best to make sure we come out on top. At the

end of the day, hardly anyone is going remember any games in

September or October.”

What they will remember is January.

The playoff-bound Falcons are carrying a troublesome monkey on

their back; actually, more like a gorilla. Atlanta has made the

postseason three of the last four years. All three times, they

lasted about as long as Snooki at a Mensa meeting, including a

blowout loss at home to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers as

the NFC’s top seed during the 2010 season.

In all likelihood, the Falcons (11-1) will be in that No. 1 spot

again, even if hardly anyone seems to think they’re the NFL’s best

team. They’ve already locked up their division and hold a 2 1/2

game lead over the next-best team in the conference with just four

weeks to go.

So, why should people believe this team – with many of the same

guys from the last three playoff flops – is suddenly going to shake

its reputation as chokers?

For one, the Falcons have displayed impressive versatility. Some

weeks, quarterback Matt Ryan has carried the Falcons on his sturdy

right arm, taking advantage of perhaps the game’s most impressive

trio of receivers (Roddy White, Julio Jones and Hall of Famer-to-be

Tony Gonzalez). Other times, it’s the defense that provides the big

plays, as was the case in Atlanta’s most recent victory over New

Orleans. With Ryan and the offense struggling, the defense picked

off Drew Brees a career-high five times and ended his record

touchdown pass streak at 54 consecutive games.

”You’ve got to find a way to get it done,” Ryan says. ”That’s

one of the reasons we’ve had a lot of success this year. We’ve

found a lot of ways to get it done. It hasn’t always shaken out the

same way. It’s a different person, a different unit, stepping up

week in and week out.”

Another thing to like about this team is the close-knit locker

room. A lot of the credit for that must go to general manager

Thomas Dimitroff, who factors character into the evaluation

process, and coach Mike Smith, who leaves little doubt he’s the

boss but is willing to listen to his players, especially the

veterans.

”I love the unity of this locker room,” Gonzalez says.

”There’s no jerks on this team. There’s no cancers on this team.

Guys love to come to work, love to compete, love to get

better.”

Rest assured, getting on the Falcons bandwagon goes against

everything I’ve learned over a lifetime.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Atlanta cheering for the Falcons.

It was a largely an exercise in frustration, one losing season

running into another, the slightest bit of hope always snuffed out

quickly. They weren’t lovable like the Chicago Cubs, either. No,

they were just bad. Turnovers and missed tackles. Poor coaching and

botched draft picks. Gallows humor was about the only thing that

got you through. Hey, did you hear about the guy who left two

season tickets on the windshield of his car, hoping someone would

take them? When he got back, he had four.

The Falcons reached their only Super Bowl during the 1998 season

with an entertaining group that called itself the ”Dirty Birds.”

Of course, they found a most unique way to snatch defeat from the

jaws of victory. The night before the big game in Miami, safety

Eugene Robinson, probably their most respected player, was arrested

for trying to buy sex from a woman who turned out to be an

undercover cop.

Robinson played anyway. Not surprisingly, he got beat for a long

touchdown pass on the game’s most crucial play, the Denver Broncos

romping to their second straight championship.

But, truth be told, things have changed over the last decade,

ever since Arthur Blank bought the team.

Three of the five division titles in franchise’s 46-year history

have come during the Blank era. Most impressively, the team bounced

right back after star quarterback Michael Vick went to prison for

running a dogfighting ring. Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan arrived the

following year; since then, the Falcons have strung together five

straight winning seasons.

Not bad, considering they had gone through their entire history,

which begins in 1966, without putting together two in a row.

Now, there’s only one thing left.

Just win, baby, in the playoffs.

”We can’t steal that from Oakland. That’s their thing,”

Peterson says, when reminded of the late Davis’ famous mantra as

owner of the Raiders.

But he can’t help himself.

”Just win, baby,” Peterson repeats, mulling it over for just a

second. ”That’s nice. I like it.”

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press.

Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or

www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963