From that on-the-surface viewpoint, they’d appear to have no shot heading into Monday night’s game against the Green Bay Packers. After all, the Packers are tied for the NFC’s record at 9-3. They have won seven of their last eight games overall and been the best home team in the league.
That’s the big picture, however. Teams put more stock in the recent film, and that tells a different story. Since blowing a fourth-quarter lead in London against Detroit to fall to 2-6, the Falcons have won three of their last four games. And they’re coming off an impressive victory over Arizona, which entered last week with the NFC’s best record.
“I think certainly turning in the right direction,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said in a conference call on Thursday. “Obviously, it’s been an up-and-down year but I think the last three or four weeks, we’ve started to play a little better. We feel like our best football’s in front of us and that’s what we’re trying to do: Get better every week and hopefully continue to improve as we move forward.”
If the Falcons continue to improve, they’ll extend their season into January. The Falcons are tied with New Orleans for first place in the NFC South. Yes, the division is terrible, but the turnaround has been commendable. The killer loss to Detroit – Atlanta led 21-0 at halftime and 21-10 entering the fourth quarter -- was the Falcons’ fifth consecutive defeat.
“I think you’ve just got to live the day that you’re in, and the day that we’re in today is that we’re first place in our division,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said in his conference call. “We’ve got to go out and try to be the best that we can be today, and we can’t worry about what’s happened in the past nor can we concern ourselves too much with what’s going to happen in the future. Our mind-set has been since we’ve come off our bye week that we committed to one another that we were only going to concern ourselves with today, be the best that we can be, make the corrections and then start the next day with the same objective. I think that’s the way you have to approach it when you’re not playing consistent football. We have not been as consistent as we needed to be.”
But they’re getting there. Since the Detroit game, the Falcons won at Tampa Bay and Carolina. They had Cleveland beaten at home, only for Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer to lead a seven-play, 61-yard scoring drive over the final 44 seconds to win the game. Then came last week’s 29-16 win over Arizona. Yes, the Cardinals are without starting quarterback Carson Palmer but the Falcons destroyed Arizona’s powerful defense to the tune of 500 yards in a 29-18 win that was far more lopsided than the final score would indicated.
“We want to be a relevant football team in December,” Smith said. “I think that’s what everybody shoots for. Sometimes being a relevant football team means having 10 wins, sometimes it means having less than that. Every team’s circumstance is a little bit different and we are a relevant football team in the month of December and we need to play our best football. And this week, we’re playing a team that’s got the best record in the NFL at 9-3 and they’re playing outstanding football and we look forward to the opportunity to prepare during the week and then go up and compete against them.”
Of course, the challenge is much tougher this week. The Packers, fresh off an impressive win over New England, are 13-point favorites. Aaron Rodgers, to state the obvious, is a better quarterback than Drew Stanton. It’s at Lambeau Field, not the Georgia Dome.
“Every year shakes out differently and this year probably has been more different than any other year that I’ve been a part of. But it is what it is,” Ryan said. “We can’t change anything that’s happened the previous 12 games. We can only affect what we’re going to do moving forward, and I think guys have bought into that and not let all of the outside things that are said affect us. We’ve got to focus on practicing well, getting ourselves prepared and then cutting it loose and going and playing our best football on Monday night.”
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