published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Wiedmer: Falcons Fever or Flu again?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Markus White, right, tackles Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as he just gets off a pass during the fourth quarter of an NFL game Dec. 30, 2012 in Atlanta. The Buccaneers won 22-17.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Markus White, right, tackles Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as he just gets off a pass during the fourth quarter of an NFL game Dec. 30, 2012 in Atlanta. The Buccaneers won 22-17.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

At 12:50 this afternoon, Tommy Stanley, his wife Beth and his three best friends — D-Rail, Ritch and PeeWee — will retreat momentarily to a barn behind Stanley's house, where they'll toast their favorite NFL football team with a "Jager[meister] Bomb" as they shout, "Go, Falcons!"

Then they'll return to his home where "we'll be sweating bullets as a group," Stanley said, as they watch the Peach State's favorite team attempt to knock off the Seattle Seahawks in the Georgia Dome in the division round of the NFL playoffs.

Welcome to Falcons Fever. Or will it again become the Falcons Flu, the Birds having lost their three playoff openers with Mike Smith as coach and Matt Ryan at quarterback?

Will the only team in the NFC to post winning records all five seasons Smith has been Atlanta's coach and Ryan its quarterback finally get its first playoff win in that span? Will the team with the second best overall record in the NFL (to New England) through those five seasons finally play like an elite team when it matters most?

Or will history repeat? Again.

"We're ready to put it behind us, but you guys keep bringing it up," 35-year-old Falcons center Todd McClure told media representatives Wednesday.

"We're focused on the future. We're focused on the Seahawks only."

Yet within this same Falcons locker room, a few stalls away, safety Thomas DeCoud told ESPN, "It's not anything we're paying too much attention to, but it's in the back of our minds."

It can't help but be in the back of their minds. Two years ago -- in this same spot after earning a first-round bye with the best record in the NFC -- the Falcons lost in the Dome by a 48-21 score to the eventual world champion Green Bay Packers.

Forced to travel to New York last January, the Falcons listlessly lost 24-2.

Now they're back in the Dome against Seattle, which is a red-hot wild-card team, much as the Packers were in 2011.

"We're a much more mature team because of our experiences," Smith said of those previous defeats. "I like the way we've played through the first season. The second season is getting ready to start, and I know that we respect everybody that's in this tournament."

It all sounds positive. And it's much more than words. After giving his team most of the bye week off two years ago against Green Bay, Smith worked them a week ago as if it were a normal game week.

"I think that's helped," Ryan said. "It's kept us in rhythm. Everything normal, just like every other week."

Think the coach and his quarterback aren't on the same page? Said Smith of the off-week work: "To me, it's no different than any other game."

But the pressure has to be different. Tight end Tony Gonzalez -- who led the Falcons with 93 catches in the regular season -- is "95 percent certain" that he's about to retire his 36-year-old body. McClure could soon join him. Cornerback Asante Samuel has 10 tough years on his 31-year-old body. Defensive end John Abraham is 34. Running back Michael Turner is showing his age at 30.

Good and young as Ryan (27) and Julio Jones (23) are, the Super Bowl window could be closing. To post the best regular-season record in the NFC two of the past three years and fail to win so much as a single playoff game might cause owner Arthur Blank to start over.

Yet there are also two huge reasons to believe that today will be different: offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, both in their first season with Atlanta.

Nolan's brilliance has been evident throughout the season, especially against Peyton and Eli Manning, who were continually befuddled by his defensive schemes.

As for Koetter, McClure said much when he said, "Dirk's always level-headed. That's huge. That makes you relax."

Stanley said there will be little relaxing in his home this afternoon, even though he strongly believes "this year's different; this year we're going to win."

It already has been a quite different season for the chief bartender and manager of the downtown Chattanooga Billiards Club. After more than 20 years of owning season tickets in section 101, Stanley gave them up this season.

So he and Beth, D-Rail, Ritch and PeeWee will watch it on TV, hoping his lucky red Falcons T-shirt -- "I wear a white one for road games," Stanley said with a laugh -- his Van Halen necklace and his 10-year-old pair of lucky socks will send Atlanta on to the NFC title game.

And if they lose?

"My biggest fear," Stanley said, "is that they'd do something to Mike Smith."

That might be Smith's biggest fear, as well.

Stanley's not thinking about that right now, however.

"If we can just win one playoff game," he said, "there's no reason we can't win three."

If.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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