Wiedmer: Falcons' playoff path now easier than Titans

Wiedmer: Falcons' playoff path now easier than Titans

November 21st, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith calls it the 24-hour rule. He implemented it as soon he got the job in 2008.

"From the very first day we got together we talked about what the formula for being a successful football team is," said Smith, "and one of things you have to do is put defeats behind you and move on to the next game."

Thus was the carryover from last week's crushing home loss to bitter NFC South rival New Orleans in overtime seemingly gone with the wind when the Tennessee Titans arrived at the Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon.

Despite both teams entering with 5-4 records, the Falcons won 23-17. And it wasn't really that close, Atlanta leading 23-3 with a little over three minutes to go in the third period.

Then Titans starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck suffered an elbow sprain. Reserve rookie reserve quarterback Jake Locker started running and gunning all over the plastic field while tossing two late touchdowns and Smith was forced to admit, "We made it a little harder than it needed to be."

However, the remarkable thing is not that Atlanta won this game against a Titans team who has overachieved to stand 5-5 at the same time the Falcons have quite possibly underachieved in going 6-4.

The stunning statistic is that the Falcons are now 16-3 under Smith following a loss, and 8-0 following their last eight defeats, including 4-0 this season.

That's how you make the playoffs. That's how you build a franchise back from the ashes, which is pretty much where the Birds were after the Michael Vick dog fighting saga and the Bobby Petrino coaching experiment that preceded Smith's arrival.

So how does he do it? And what should first-year Titans head coach Mike Munchak incorporate from it as he attempts to keep Sunday's loss in Atlanta from becoming the team's second two-game losing streak this season heading into Sunday's visit from Tampa Bay?

"We don't let things linger," said Smith. "When we get back out on that field on Wednesday we wipe our slate clean and we move on."

Despite Sunday's loss, there is growing evidence that the Titans are moving on from Jeff Fisher's 16 seasons as head coach and the chemistry killer that was former quarterback Vince Young.

Just consider Hasselbeck's kind comments, which appeared to be sincere, regarding Locker's heroics.

"It was fun to see," he said. "I've said many times that I think he has a real bright future. What we didn't expect to see was some of the heroics on situations like fourth and 17."

Indeed, if Locker ultimately replaces Hasselbeck this season rather than some year down the road, that 4th and 17 play with 4:40 to play will certainly be remembered.

With everyone who was left in the Dome - and that wasn't a lot of folks from either side - expecting him to chunk it deep, Locker went short to tight end Jared Cook, who went 22 yards for a first down.

Locker later connected with Lavelle Hawkins on a 32-yarder then hit Nate Washington from four yards out after previously hooking up with him on a 40-yard catch-and-run score.

"A lot of fun," said Locker of his first two TD passes as a professional quarterback. "There was a lot of adrenaline. I would have preferred a better outcome. But everybody kept playing hard, which is a great sign."

It is a great sign that the Titans are still in the playoff hunt 10 games into the season. But it will be a better sign if they defeat the Buccaneers on Sunday.

Said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan of the Falcons' 24-hour rule to brood, "Smitty does a great job of ingraining in all of us that it's time to move on. You're going to have some tough losses in this league and you need to move on from that."

If the Titans can embrace that philosophy well enough, they just might halt their years without a playoff berth at two. Just as important, the Falcons just might make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history, a feat sure to be talked about throughout the Big Peach for a good deal longer than 24 hours.