Falcons face their toughest test

sports@macon.comDecember 15, 2012 

There was a common theme in the Atlanta Falcons’ locker room on Dec. 9. They had just lost, in an unimpressive performance, to the Carolina Panthers.

“We’ll learn from it,” head coach Mike Smith said.

“It’s something we can learn from,” promised center Todd McClure.

“We’ve definitely got to learn from this game,” echoed tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Perhaps that’s what everyone says after a loss like that, but it was interesting that almost everyone interviewed said the same exact thing. It was almost like they had rehearsed it before the media was allowed into the room.

The Falcons do need to learn from that loss. They can’t take any team for granted, regardless of the records. They can’t come out sluggish in the first half, especially on the road. And they have to do better converting third downs.

Atlanta is the most disrespected 11-2 NFL team you’ll ever see. Many people just don’t believe the Falcons are for real. But it’s their own fault. They’re the ones who have not been as impressive as you would like an 11-2 team to be. Atlanta is the team that can look pretty good one week and then look like it is going through the motions the next.

The players know the skepticism exists.

Gonzalez said, “Looking at our history, a lot of people are going to say, ‘Well, see I told you.’ We’re a good football team. There’s no doubt about it. And we’re going to play better because we have to. We’re going to get back to playing the way we have.”

Even in some of the games they’ve won this year, like against the Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals and in the first game against the Panthers, the Falcons looked like they were lucky.

Sure, luck is a residue of design, as the old saying goes. But it’s not like they were being lucky against the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. And yes, you can say that good teams find a way to win a game they maybe aren’t supposed to win. But these are reasons why many still haven’t bought stock in the Falcons as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

That could all change Sunday when they play the New York Giants, a team that embarrassed them in the playoffs last January. Revenge better be on the Atlanta players’ minds, especially with the opportunity to hurt New York’s chances to get into the playoffs.

The Giants hold a slim one-game lead on the hard-charging Redskins and on Dallas in the NFC East. They desperately want to hold on to that lead and avoid a log jam in the playoff race with only a couple of weeks left.

We all knew when the Falcons’ schedule came out that this could be the biggest and most challenging game. But New York’s secondary has struggled, and the heralded front four that caused Atlanta so much stress last time they met, has been fairly ordinary, if not disappointing.

So perhaps Matt Ryan can have a good game and get the offense back on track. The Atlanta offense, which had great rhythm early on in the season, has sputtered recently. But one thing Ryan has always done well is to bounce back from a loss. The last time the Falcons lost two games in a row in the regular season was in 2009.

“One of the things you learn as you have experience in this league is that if you play poorly one week you can’t let that turn into two weeks,” he said after the loss to the Panthers. “We’ve done a good job of rebounding in the past, and that’s what we have to do this week.”

They still believe they have the team that can go deep into the playoffs, but the Falcons also know it’s important to play well in these final few weeks so they’ll have the momentum going into the postseason. The leaders on this team, particularly Ryan and Gonzalez, have to lead the way in making sure that happens.

“We’re in a great position,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve just got to go out there and play the football that we’re capable of playing -- the football that we’ve done and everybody knows we can play. But we’ve got to do it consistently. And we will. We’ll get it done.”

And we’ll see if they did, in fact, learn from what happened against the Panthers.

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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