Falcons face critical stretch

December 8, 2012 

In a way, this is déjà vu all over again for the Atlanta Falcons. Here they are, sailing along on the second Sunday in December. They have a two-and-a-half game lead over San Francisco for the best record in the NFC.

This same thing happened two years ago. Things didn’t turn out so well at the end, when the Falcons were steamrolled by the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.

That’s why this year must be different. The Falcons have to learn from the past to avoid the same outcome.

The similarities, however, are striking. In 2010, after 12 games, Atlanta had a 10-2 record. The Falcons had won seven of those 10 games by fewer than 10 points. This season, the Falcons are 11-1, and they also have won seven games by fewer than 10 points.

Some wondered two years ago if the Falcons were for real, and the awful 48-21 loss to Green Bay in the divisional playoff game proved they were not. That same question is logically being asked again this year, and the Falcons still have a lot to prove.

They’re still searching for their first playoff win under the current regime of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. They all came in five-plus seasons ago and changed the fortunes of the franchise.

Since 2008, Atlanta has gone 54-22. That’s great. There’s nothing that even compares with it in the Falcons’ history. But the 0-3 record in the playoffs is what has to change.

The best way for the month of January to turn out differently is for Atlanta to go into the playoffs as the hottest team in the game. The past two seasons, the Falcons have been eliminated by the Packers and the New York Giants. Both were wild-card teams that got hot late in the season and ended up raising the Lombardi Trophy after their Super Bowl victory.

There’s a great chance the Falcons will once again have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They’d have to almost choke to lose that lead with only four weeks to go. But instead of just coasting into the playoffs, the Falcons need to play like they are fighting for a postseason berth.

Atlanta should win Sunday in Carolina. Even with both teams beat up, which is normal at this point in the season, the Falcons should be able to defeat Cam Newton and the Panthers. But the Falcons shouldn’t just win because they can. They need to win because they need to simply play good football.

Carolina had a couple of players say this past week that they thought they were better than the Falcons. Well, the Panthers are 3-9 and eight games back of the Falcons. I’m not sure what they were thinking, but they might have just done the Falcons a favor. They might have lit a fire that is in danger of going dim.

It’s just so easy for a team that is having a great season to put it in neutral. The Falcons have to play every week with a sense of urgency. Even though they’ll have the first week off with the bye, they need to be the hottest team in football when they host their second-round opponent.

Certainly having to watch the Packers and Giants the past two years has taught the Falcons players just that. And this Atlanta team does seem different. Perhaps it’s the different mix of veterans, like Asante Samuel, who was not on this team two years ago but has two Super Bowl rings from his years in New England.

Perhaps it’s the notion that this could, in fact, be tight end Tony Gonzalez’s final chance at a playoff victory and a Super Bowl. The future Hall of Famer sounds serious this time about retiring at season’s end, and there would be no better parting gift than walking out as a champion.

But it might all come down to how Atlanta plays in this final quarter of the season. Carolina will be tough Sunday because it’s a division rival game. The Giants come to Atlanta next week, which will be the best test of the season for the Falcons. Then there’s a road game in Detroit before wrapping up the regular season at home against Tampa Bay.

The Falcons have to take these final four games to get healthy and to prepare for the biggest opportunity they’ve had … well, since 2010. But this time they’ve got to do better, and how they play now might determine their chances.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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