Falcons Shoot for a Rarity: A Playoff Win

Since 2008, when Mike Smith became head coach and Thomas Dimitroff became general manager, the Falcons have had four consecutive winning seasons. But that next step for the franchise has been onto an ice-covered ledge. They are 0-2 in the playoffs, with a and a .

“It’s about time we won, it’s about time we got a W,” said wide receiver Roddy White, who has been with the organization since 2005. “Everybody wants to win really, really bad, and get that first one out of the way.”

Asked what a playoff loss to the Giants on Sunday would mean, White said: “It’ll be devastating because this will be our third opportunity and we came up short. It’ll be tough for a whole ’nother six months.”

The franchise did not give up four draft picks and swap first-round selections in the 2011 draft with Cleveland to sixth over all, only to be flattened against the same ceiling. The Falcons drafted the explosive Jones and signed the pass-rush specialist Ray Edwards to break through and close the gap with Green Bay and New Orleans, the two dominant teams in the N.F.C.

The , but they beat just two teams with winning records, Detroit and Tennessee. They were clobbered on the road by New Orleans, 45-16, yet fought the Saints and the Packers at home before losing close games to both.

The Falcons have skill on offense with quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner, and White, but the running game and the red-zone offense have wobbled at times, and the defense lacks a star in the secondary.

On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Falcons understand that they will be branded as just another team, or a really good team.

“There’s a lot of pressure to win, and to relieve that pressure, we need to win a playoff game,” offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said. “We’re not just trying to win one playoff game, we’re trying to win four. If we win one and then lose, it’s just as disappointing to us.

“The goal is the . If you don’t get there, what’s the difference between losing Sunday or losing another game after that?”

Turner said the Falcons could not let the stage Sunday overwhelm them. They cannot have wide eyes and rabbit ears, and become distracted.

He was asked what the Falcons learned from two playoff losses. “Play smarter in those games; we made some critical mistakes,” Turner said. “Don’t let the games get too big for us.”

Turner said that although the Falcons were a young team in the past, “I think we have the experience under us now that we can actually make a push.”

The Falcons went 43 seasons without having back-to-back winning seasons, but the climate has changed significantly. They are long past being lampooned, and are instead seen as reliable and trustworthy because of Smith, Dimitroff and the owner Arthur Blank.

The Falcons are not as beloved here as the University of Georgia football program, or Southeastern Conference football in general, but the momentum from season after season of being a Super Bowl contender — and a playoff win or two — can change the status of the brand. The organization wants to use some public money to build a $750 million open-air stadium in the next five to six years to replace the outdated Georgia Dome, and postseason success can only make that a smoother path.

White said the message from Smith this week was that the Falcons had plenty of seasoning to win a playoff game on the road. They have 41 players on their 53-man roster who have playoff experience, and that is something to lean on.

“It’s time for everyone to take their game to the next level,” White said. “We’ve all played in playoff games, so it’s time for us to go win one.”

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Winning One for Al Davis

There might not have been a more inevitable result than the Raiders winning their game over the Texans on Sunday. There simply was no other possible ending. Because wherever you think the sports world’s No. 1 curmudgeon landed in the afterlife after his death on Saturday, Al Davis was going to make eternity unbearable for whoever is in charge had his beloved team not given him a proper sendoff victory. After years of raging at the N.F.L. machine, his raging might have produced actual thunder. Or an earthquake.

But seriously, Davis’s death does more than create the emotional spillover that was the Raiders’ victory over the Texans, . Sure, Davis’s fingerprints are visible, with his love of speed evident everywhere,, but it will always be impossible to know how much of the Raiders’ recent resurgence dovetailed with Davis’s declining health because others were taking more of the reins. Now, they could make the same surge that the Blackhawks did in the N.H.L. after their crotchety, old-school owner (William Wirtz) died in 2007, although it is worth noting that Chicago fans hated Wirtz enough to boo his memorial moment of silence while Raiders fans still. That is despite the fact that the Raiders have just three winning seasons in the past 15 years and their motto now is apparently “Just fire a lot of coaches, baby!”

Also keep in mind that the Raiders are 2-2 and Sunday’s victory came over the Texans, who, , have created a specialty out of blowing close games. The one thing we do know is that one of sports’ great villains is now gone, , and the N.F.L. just got a little more logical, which means it might be a little less fun.

Even aside from the Raiders’ victory, the N.F.L. was full of signals from the football gods on Sunday. They clearly still do not like the Eagles, whose slide to 1-4 has brought on a full-scale condemnation of Coach Andy Reid, which, , was probably inevitable. And quarterback Michael Vick’s recklessness with the ball is looking a lot less charming these days, . The Falcons have also apparently angered someone in high places because they haven’t been the same since they lost that playoff game last season, . And the Jets are not only losing games, but their entire bluster-based personality is disappearing, .

Perhaps the most entertaining losing, however, is going on in Denver because it has created a new Tim Tebow firestorm, a spectacular clash between the Broncos fans who have seized upon him as their great symbol of hope — as — and the “football people” who watch him play and start running away while covering their eyes. The clash shows no sign of ending, , and wasn’t quelled when Coach John Fox turned to him against the Chargers even though he , and he nearly engineered a comeback despite going 4 for 10.

Meanwhile, the most entertaining winning comes courtesy of the Green Bay Packers, who rode in the Georgia Dome. This indicates that Wisconsin has not only wooed the football gods, but the overall sports gods too, because the Packers’ come-from-behind victory followed the Brewers’ come-from-nowhere victory over the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. That featured an offensive comeback that would make Rodgers proud: a 22-pitch span in which Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Yuniesky Betancourt blasted the game wide open, . , Yuniesky Betancourt, who for a time this season was suspected of being . Brewers fans were understandably thrilled, perhaps because their team is finally more exciting than the sausage races, .

The American League Championship Series was postponed by , but did give the Tigers another day to figure out how to replace the players . The Tigers added Delmon Young, .

Hockey threw a great moment into the mix Sunday with the Winnipeg Jets opener, which was a triumph even though the Jets got clobbered by the Canadiens, . And golf threw in a not-so-great moment when Tiger Woods’s round at the Open was interrupted by a .

Maybe Al Davis had something to do with that, too.

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Falcons Keep Winning, Even if Few Seem to Notice

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.. No NFL team has a better record than Mike Smith’s Falcons, and perhaps none has made fewer headlines.

They practice, they play and they win without hype. There’s little drama and even less national publicity in this post- era.

Maybe that’s why the Atlanta coach laughs when asked whether there has been more national demands on his time with the 7-2 Falcons atop the NFC.

“Uh, no,” Smith said. “They don’t want to talk to me.”

Not even after his team’s exciting last-minute 26-21 win over the last week. Even the Falcons’ losses have been impressive — at Philadelphia and in overtime at Pittsburgh.

Doesn’t matter. Smith, who carries one of the lowest profiles of any coach in the league, never detours from the all-business script that his players follow faithfully, if almost anonymously.

And if the nation yawns, that’s fine. Call these Falcons dull, but call them winners.

“I just feel like we’re flying under the radar and we’re doing a good job of that and we’re just going to stay where we’re at,” receiver Roddy White says.

There’s not a lot of flash in the Falcons, who place an emphasis on running the ball and stopping the run. It’s not a style that commands a lot of attention, but it has Smith on pace for his third straight winning record with a franchise that had never before had back-to-back winning seasons.

Few outside of Atlanta may know much about even the team’s top players.

White’s numbers are up there with the NFL’s best receivers. He’s a clutch performer with an engaging personality and the most-quoted player on the team, not that many outside of Atlanta have noticed.

White doesn’t criticize teammates or second-guess his coach. He doesn’t earn repeated fines from the league for his tweets. He doesn’t have his own TV show.

This is Smith’s team, and foolery is not tolerated.

It’s little wonder why White and his teammates are so willing to wrap themselves in their blanket of anonymity.

The Falcons had more than their share of headlines the last few years, and little of it was positive. While Vick is flourishing in Philadelphia, his fall from grace while the face of the Atlanta franchise overshadowed the team for two years.

There was the Jim Mora Jr., firing, which came after he expressed on talk radio his desire to coach at the . The Falcons hit bottom when Mora’s replacement, Bobby Petrino, quit with three games remaining in a 4-12 2007 season.

The moves prompted Falcons owner Arthur Blank to pledge going forward that he would choose substance and character over flash and style. To get it done, he hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff — a little-known director of college scouting for the .

Dimitroff’s hiring led to Atlanta signing Smith — the ‘ defensive coordinator — free agent running back Michael Turner and drafting quarterback Matt Ryan.

“Matty Ice” as Ryan is known, was the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. But like many of his teammates — including White, Turner and defensive end — Ryan isn’t in discussions about the NFL’s elite.

White, a three-time Pro Bowler, has 70 catches, seven for TDs, and is second in the league with 934 yards receiving. Turner has 733 yards rushing and should easily post his second 1,000-yard season in three years. Abraham is fourth in the league with 8 sacks.

Then there’s Ryan, coming off a breakout game against the Ravens in which he threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to White with 20 seconds remaining. Ryan’s 16 TD passes with only five interceptions are almost identical to this year’s numbers from and , but it’s still too early for Ryan to be grouped with the top quarterbacks.

It all adds up to Atlanta playing for a still-skeptical national audience. Winning seems to generate more questions about whether they are for real than buzz about their success.

The Falcons aren’t complaining, particularly Abraham.

He played under the media microscope during his six seasons with the and is happy with the peaceful quiet — and success — of the Smith regime.

“I kind of like it,” Abraham said. “I think it’s good for us that people are still talking about other teams being better than us. We’re just going to continue to keep winning and as long as we keep winning I really don’t care necessarily about what they’re saying.”

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