Heading into the season, Falcons players and front-office employees were puzzled that so many people pegged the team to finish with five or fewer losses.
Those insulated by the optimism each team holds didn't take into account the potential emotional drain of quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting saga. They also seemed to not factor in the potential dip occasionally related to the transition of a new coach -- let alone a college coach.
The immediate success Jim Mora had as a rookie coach and the confidence they had in the players they brought on board skewed their perspective. Plus, they were waylaid by the unexpected resignation of coach Bobby Petrino with three games left.
Now, the reality of a season's worth of turmoil has hit them hard.
Following Sunday's 37-3 loss at Tampa Bay, players said they finally realized that the distractions have overwhelmed them.
"It's tough man. It's been a long season for us and people are starting to show their emotions, how they really feel," wide receiver Roddy White said. "It's tough to go out there and you want so much to win and you don't get any breaks. You got bad things happening in games. You got a guy returning a kick for a touchdown and they've never done that in franchise history.
"It just continues to get worse."
Players not only said they've been spending a lot of time worrying about Vick's recent 23-month prison sentence and Petrino's departure, but it's also hard not to think about who the next head coach is going to be and if they will be with the team next season.
Interim coach Emmitt Thomas, a former standout player and longtime coach, isn't big on players feeling sorry for themselves.
"That's professional sports," Thomas said. "You know you're going to have those ups and downs, peaks and valleys. You have to hang in there."
There is no way to describe the turmoil that has rattled the franchise to rubble. However, the effort Atlanta displayed twice in one week belies the competitive nature of a pro athlete.
In losses to New Orleans Monday night -- the eve of Petrino's resignation -- and Sunday's fifth consecutive loss, the Falcons have been outscored 71-17. The offense has been terrible while the defense has been put in every unenviable possible.
Chris Redman played fairly well against the Saints but he completely fell apart against the Buccaneers, throwing an interception that Ronde Barber returned for a touchdown on the game's third play and finishing with four completions on 15 attempts. His passer rating: Zero.
The Falcons will stick with Redman for the rest of the season, though, Thomas said. Any more changes could simply add to the problems.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took over as the play caller from Petrino against Tampa Bay. He only had three days to really install the game plan because he interviewed for the Duke head coaching job Thursday. University of Tennessee assistant David Cutcliffe ended up getting the position.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer continued to call the defense and he had his unit playing at a high level until it finally wore down late.
Players said they felt bad that they performed so poorly for Thomas, who many of them lobbied for once Petrino bailed. Thomas said that despite the team's awful showing, he is excited for the opportunity and thinks Atlanta will be much more prepared and focused for Sunday's game at Arizona.
Even so, he doesn't know what to expect.
"I don't want you to feel sorry for me," Thomas said. "As a staff pray for us to get the guys playing like pros."
--DE John Abraham, who has managed to stay healthy this season after missing most of 2006 with a groin injury, sustained a left knee injury against the Bucs. No diagnosis was provided but he did walk off the field, although he did not return. Chauncey Davis filled in.
--WR Roddy White had just one catch for four yards, leaving him one-yard short of 1,000 receiving yards.
--TE Alge Crumpler had his string of consecutive games with a completion snapped at 74. WRs Laurent Robinson, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins and RB Warrick Dunn were the only players to catch a pass from QB Chris Redman.
--Rookie OLB Stephen Nicholas appears he will end the season as he started, and that's platooning with OLB Demorrio Williams. Nicholas rotated series with Williams before suffering a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for three games. In the four games since he returned, he played exclusively on special teams. Nicholas is back in a rotation.
--A telling sign of how some of the offensive coaches felt about the quarterbacks was evident once coach Bobby Petrino left. Petrino had started or used Byron Leftwich as the main backup when he was healthy. Leftwich has been demoted to the No. 3 quarterback behind Chris Redman and Joey Harrington since Petrino left.
The Carolina Panthers have found a new quarterback -- at least for the remainder of this season.
"The guys up front were huge," Moore said. "Seattle has a good defense and I think I only got touched one time. That is outstanding. You can't ask for anything better than that. I think we ran the ball good. Personally, I'm just glad I managed the game and didn't make any major mistakes.
"I tried to stay calm and stay focused. Our quarterback coach said all week to just manage the game. If it's not there, check it down. I'm glad things worked out like that."
Coach John Fox didn't waste any time saying Moore would start this Saturday night against Dallas (12-2), which should be jacked up following a loss to Philadelphia.
Moore's teammates were impressed with his effort.
"He's always had good huddle composure," said right tackle Jordan Gross. "I think it was nice for him knowing he was going to start. He got a lot of reps in practice. He didn't look like a rookie in there and he made a lot of reads. I think he had a pretty clean game."
Receiver Steve Smith, who caught seven passes for 82 yards, said Moore did a great job.
"For a young guy like that, who comes in as a undrafted free agent rookie, he showed poise," Smith said. "Everybody makes mistakes, but the way he handled his mistakes shows his poise and his potential for the future.
As for Moore's command in the huddle, Smith said, "He was just like every other quarterback. He listens to the play, and calls it loud. Nobody is like Jake (Delhomme) in the huddle, but everybody has a different personality. He knows how to command people's attention, and I think he did a great job today."
Carolina's defense held the Seahawks out of the end zone for 59 minutes and 59 seconds before giving up a meaningless touchdown pass.
"The defense played outstanding," Moore said. "It's a little nerve racking sitting there. We needed to punch it into the end zone sooner. We ended up getting it done. It was a little uneasy there for a bit, but it was a good job overall."
Members of Carolina's defense, which have for the most part avoided pointing fingers at the struggling offense, have said in the past that if they want to win they must take matters into their own hands.
In other words, they can't allow the opposing offense to move the football, and certainly not score.
On Sunday, they limited the high-powered Seahawks to 282 yards, 65 of those coming on a meaningless Matt Hasselbeck-led touchdown drive in the final minute.
"It's a team game," said linebacker Thomas Davis, whose sack and forced fumble on Hasselbeck led to Carolina's only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter.
"When you go out, we can't blame the offense. The offense is not letting teams score points. It's us as a defense. And we feel like we do a better job each week and give the offense more possessions -- than maybe they can come out and get something done. Matt Moore did a great job with that today."
--QB Matt Moore played for the sore Vinny Testaverde. Although coach John Fox said it was a game-time decision at quarterback, Moore made it pretty clear he knew he was going to start this past Thursday. He threw for 208 yards in his first NFL start. He will start Saturday night against Dallas.
--DE Julius Peppers left Sunday's game with a sprained knee, but appeared to be fine in the locker room after the game. The extent of his injury is not known.
--WR Steve Smith didn't record 100 yards or score a touchdown for the eighth straight game. However, he did catch seven passes for 82 yards in the win and made some big grabs along the way.
--RB DeAngelo Williams outgained DeShaun Foster again and scored on a 35-yard touchdown run.
--WR Drew Carter started again and had three catches for 22 yards.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Apparently, the Saints aren't going to go away quietly this season.
After losing their first four games of the season, everyone wrote the Saints off. Except for the Saints themselves, that is.
After winning two games in seven days against the Atlanta Falcons (34-14) and Arizona Cardinals (31-24), the Saints are in pretty good shape in the NFC wild-card playoff race with just two regular-season games left.
But the Saints, who host the Philadelphia Eagles and visit the Chicago Bears in the next two weeks, feigned ignorance of their wild-card situation after outlasting Arizona for their seventh win in their last 10 outings.
As far as the Saints (7-7) are concerned, the playoffs started the minute they dropped a 27-23 heartbreaker to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 2, which virtually handed the Bucs the NFC South title.
The way the Saints see it, they started the playoffs with a beating of the Falcons on Monday Night Football and continued their path to the real post-season by getting past the Cardinals.
Knowing what they were up against, the Saints came up with one of their more complete games of the season on offense and defense in putting a srious dent in the Cardinals' postseason chances.
They did it in front of a raucous Superdome crowd that had watched them drop eight of their previous 11 games in the building -- going 2-4 this season.
"It was a must-win situation, a playoff atmosphere," said quarterback Drew Brees. "We had to have this win and get everybody's best performance. That is the situation we put ourselves in and we're getting the best out of ourselves now.
"When we sat there with four games (left) and said we had to have all these games, that could be daunting," he added. "But we're treating each game like a playoff game. Today was a playoff-type atmosphere."
Brees certainly played like it was a playoff game. He completed 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns -- a 19-yarder to Marques Colston and a 32-yarder to David Patten -- and had a passer rating of 132.6 to reach triple digits for the fourth consecutive game.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints' defense had an interception, a fumble recovery and two sacks in addition to a huge third-down stop in the fourth quarter. The offense turned the two takeaways by the defense into 14 points.
"We're just trying to (stay) in that playoff hunt," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "It's one game at a time. This was a much-needed win and we played with a sense of urgency. It's win them all, or we go home.
"The Cardinals were in the same situation that we were in, possibly not making the playoffs," Smith said. "So it was just like a playoff game for both of us."
"That was a good win for us to get," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It was a hard-fought game that came down to field position and turnovers. We are still battling. We are still hanging in there."
--RB Reggie Bush missed his second straight game against the Arizona Cardinals because of a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
--RB Aaron Stecker made his second straight start in the backfield with Bush sidelined.
--TE Eric Johnson, who injured his groin against the Atlanta Falcons, was inactive for Sunday's game.
--TE Billy Miller started against the Cardinals in place of Johnson.
--FS Josh Bullocks was inactive against the Cardinals because of a strained quadriceps muscle.
--FS Kevin Kaesviharn started for the second straight games against the Cardinals in place of Bullocks.
--DT Brian Young did not play against the Cardinals after missing practice all week with what was described as a chest cold.
--DT Renaldo Wynn made his first start as a member of the Saints in filling in for Young.