Bill Huber: The Falcons have flown under the radar all season, despite their 13-3 record. Outside of the obvious, like Matt Ryan being a good quarterback, can you pinpoint a few reasons for their success after a disappointing year last year?
Bill Shanks: Atlanta's offensive line has really jelled, allowing Ryan the time to throw it to Roddy White, who we all believe is the best receiver in the NFL. The combination of Ryan, White, Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez is a pretty strong group, but if the offensive line is not there, they are nothing. Also, the pressure from John Abraham and Kroy Biermann on the defensive line has really made the defense a relentless bunch. The development of safety William Moore has given the secondary a head-hunter.
Huber: It's funny: Last week, all the talk was about Aaron Rodgers having not won a playoff game in his career. This week, there's no such talk about Ryan, even though they're both third-year starters. We know Ryan is good but is he good enough to win a game if the running game gets shut down?
Woodson applies heat on Ryan.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Huber: With Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, that's a lot of firepower. But if there's an unsung hero on offense, who would that be?
Shanks: Again, I go back to the offensive line. Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl came out of nowhere a few years ago, and now they have developed into stars. Todd McClure is the anchor at center. And Justin Blalock and Sam Baker have held their own. They've blocked well for Turner and protected Ryan, and that's a big reason they have been successful.
Huber: The Packers' Clay Matthews, who finished fourth with 13.5 sacks might win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. There's not a peep about John Abraham, even with 13 sacks. Is he the guy the Packers absolutely must stop? And can you give us the scoop on the Falcons' pass defense, which figures to be tested.
Shanks: Abraham has been terrific. He is someone any opposing coaching staff has to worry about. When he's in a groove, he can be just as unstoppable as Matthews. But the player on the other side can be just as dangerous. Kroy Biermann has developed into a solid pass rusher. He's a bit undersized, but he's got a motor that can really go. And don't forget middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. He's another underrated player that needs more national attention. He's really a heck of a player that causes havoc on defense. But it all starts with Abraham. He sets the tone on defense.
Huber: The Sporting News selected Mike Smith as its coach of the year. What makes Smith so good? I'm not sure anyone had heard of the guy before the Falcons hired him but all he's done is go 33-15.
Shanks: On the day Smith was hired, I even asked, "Who in the heck is Mike Smith?" I had no idea. Then I wondered why they would hire a guy that had never been a head coach on any level. But I'm not wondering now. He's been outstanding. He's allowed Mike Mularkey to run the offense, and he and Brian VanGorder do a great job of planning the defense. It's a well-oiled machine. Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager, has brought leadership and a professionalism that the Falcons have never seen before. He works well with Smith. They are just on the same page, and that's something that has rarely been said in the 45 years of Falcons football. Smith shows great emotion on the sideline, and the players feed off that enthusiasm.
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