Wiedmer: Atlanta Falcons move from flops to favorites in one week

Wiedmer: Atlanta Falcons move from flops to favorites in one week

December 18th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan works during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - Given the gut-wrenching, heart-crushing events of this past weekend in Newtown, Conn., Atlanta Falcons defensive back Asante Samuel might have chosen his words more carefully.

"We love the haters, man," he said Sunday following his team's 34-0 thumping of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants inside the Georgia Dome.

"The haters keep us going. So keep your hate coming. It helps us play with a chip on our shoulder."

Samuel was referring to all the negativity surrounding the Birds after their 30-20 loss at Carolina a week earlier, a defeat to dredge up all the Atlanta postseason playoff collapses of the past decade.

And there did seem to be a lot of chippy chirping from Falcons Nation for a team that still stood 11-2 before the Giants victory.

The problem for Samuel and Atlanta going forward is that the haters are all gone, replaced by a burgeoning bandwagon of Falcons fanatics, those instantaneous fans who'll now tag the Birds as the NFC favorites to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

Yep, from flops to favorites in seven days. That's pro sports these days. Particularly in the NFL.

But if the Falcons can find something other than hate to motivate them through the final two games of the regular season -- Saturday night at Detroit, Dec. 30 at home versus Tampa Bay -- and into the playoffs, they just might reach the Super Bowl.

Why?

For starters, Atlanta needs only one win in its final two regular-season games to guarantee the home field throughout the NFC playoffs. In case you missed this, the Falcons have won 11 straight inside the Georgia Dome.

"I can't pinpoint [why], but we play very good football when are at home," coach Mike Smith said Sunday. "We talk about controlling home field. It's a step that you have to take to be successful in this league. It's hard to win on the road."

Then there's new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Much as he did in earlier search-and-destroy schemes against elite quarterbacks Peyton Manning (Denver) and Drew Brees (New Orleans) this season, Nolan flummoxed Giants quarterback Eli Manning from the Giants' opening possession.

Just as Peyton threw an interception on his first series back in September, younger brother Eli followed suit Sunday, Samuel baiting him into a quick pick.

In words almost identical to those he used to praise Nolan after that Denver win, Smith said of Eli's first-ever shutout loss in the NFL: "It was a look that [Manning] probably hadn't seen from us."

Here's a stat that no defense in the NFL probably hasa ever produced if forced to face Peyton, Eli and Brees in the same season: In its three home games this year against those three future Hall of Famers, the Falcons have given up one touchdown pass (Peyton) and picked off 10 passes.

That's the stuff of potential Super Bowl champs.

Not that this guarantees Atlanta a spot opposite the AFC champs -- either Peyton's Broncos or Tom Brady's New England Patriots, perhaps? -- inside New Orleans' Superdome on Feb. 3.

Good as the Falcons were against the Giants, Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have yet to win a playoff game with three previous tries. Though Atlanta would figure to be the prohibitive favorite in its division round against the lowest seed after the wild-card weekend, what if that seed becomes the Giants?

Does anyone really believe the same Giants team that left the Georgia Dome on Sunday will return for a playoff game?

Beyond that, should it be the Falcons versus Green Bay in the NFC title game, the Packers have shredded Atlanta inside the Dome the last two times they've played there, including the playoffs two years ago.

Yet those Falcons teams didn't have Nolan running the defense. Nor was there the quick, slick Samuel roaming the secondary.

Nor did they have the three-headed receiving monster of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas -- plus tight end Tony Gonzalez.

That Fab Four combined for 222 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Giants, whom many believe are the NFC's best defense.

Finally, there's this from Smith, who brushed aside the first shutout of a Giants team in 16 years with the following line: "We haven't played our best game."

If he's right, a Falcons team their own fans hated a week ago just may become the team the rest of the NFL will hate to play come the playoffs.