The Atlanta Falcons have 13 wins this season, 125 more points scored than their opponents and three offensive players headed to the Pro Bowl. What is harder to quantify, but definitely a significant amount, is the number of detractors the Falcons have despite their number-one overall seed in the upcoming NFC playoffs.
That is not likely a matter of much daily concern in the Falcons' locker room, but the team is definitely aware of the national perception that they are not as good as their record would indicate. Part of that is the result of Atlanta's recent history, which includes some outstanding regular seasons – including another 13-win, number-one-seed campaign two years ago – and zero playoff victories.
Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez, one of those three Pro Bowlers, knows there is only one way to erase that perception, and it's not by worrying about how just it is.
"I don't know whether it's fair or not, but it is what it is," said the good-natured 16th-year veteran. "That's human nature. [For] reporters, media, the public, that's what matters, winning in the postseason. So I understand that. I get it. And part of me says, 'Yeah, you're right.' It's up to us to go out there and make sure that what happened before doesn't happen again.
The noise that's going on out there with all the talk shows and all that stuff, we can't listen to that. We have to go out there and just stay focused. We can't listen to anything. We've got to go out there and make it happen this year and then people will change their minds. That's the only way to do it. We have to go out there and win."
Technically, the Falcons don't have to win this weekend, as they will have a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs no matter what happens against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. That cushion has led to the open and obvious speculation that Atlanta may choose to limit or completely rest some of their key players in the regular-season finale. Gonzalez says that no specific plan has been shared with the players regarding playing time, but that they are preparing this week just like they have all year.
"It's business as usual around here," he said. "I've been in this position before – we have, as a team – a couple years ago and obviously earlier in my career, and you can't have those types of slip-ups. In fact, that would be a bad thing if we go out there and think we're just going to walk through it. We've got to go out there and be ready to go because they're a good football team, they've got some really talented player and we'll be ready."
Obviously, the Falcons would like to head into the postseason with as much momentum as possible in order to achieve their ultimate goals and reverse that outside perception. Regardless of what happens in Week 17, however, Gonzalez is confident that his team is in a better position for a deep playoff run than it was in the last two years because of the development of many of its core players.
"If you just look at it from a talent standpoint, we're a better football team, talent-wise," said Gonzalez, who was also on the Atlanta team in 2010 that lost its opening playoff game at home to the Green Bay Packers, 48-21. "It's pretty much the same offense that's been around here for awhile but some guys are really coming into their own. When I say talent, I say guys that are coming into their own as football players – a guy like Matt Ryan, for instance. He's playing the best football that I've ever seen him play, having his best year by far, making good decisions, and that helps your offense be better. Julio Jones, his second year – he's become a better football player. You look at defense, and guys are hitting that year three, four and five where you really start to become the football player you're capable of being and you're really at your best. Or at least you should be, in my opinion. Guys like Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, [Sean] Weatherspoon in the middle – guys are playing really, really well. On offense, another guy who's coming into his own and having his best year is Sam Baker, our left tackle. All these guys are starting to peak as players, and it's making our football team better. And on the offensive side of the ball, it all starts with Matt. He's having a career year, a Pro Bowl type of season, and that's helped us be successful."
While the Falcons are indeed winning with a lot of homegrown talent, Gonzalez (a key free agent acquisition himself several years ago) does point to one import from another team who has made a big difference: CB Asante Samuel. Samuel is a four-time Pro Bowler with 49 career interceptions, but it is the experience and mindset that he has gained from making it to the playoffs in each of the first eight seasons of his career that Gonzalez particularly appreciates.
"The defensive guys are stepping up and playing really well," he said. "A guy like Asante Samuel has helped us out a lot, probably more so with his attitude, the type of swag that he has. He's very, very confident and I think that rubs off on the guys on defense. We're a different team. It's a different football team, a different mentality, a different makeup, a different coaching staff on offense and defense. It's a new year, as far as I'm concerned."
The Falcons have cultivated their own attitude about their 2012 season that is at odds with the perception of many. They have had a series of very close decisions on their way to a 13-2 record, including a one-point win over the Buccaneers in Tampa just five weeks ago, but where some see that as a sign of weakness or luck, the Falcons see it as a winning edge.
"The reason we were able to come out on top [against Tampa Bay] last time?" said Gonzalez. "I probably couldn't give you a definitive reason. We just made plays when we had to, and that's kind of been our story throughout our season. That's kind of been a knock against us. We don't look at it as a knock, but people say, 'You guys win games but you barely won them,' or maybe, 'You shouldn't have won them.' But that doesn't mean anything to me. All I care about is getting a win. That was another game where we felt like, you know what, we made the plays when we had to. Give them credit, they played us very tough, but we came out on top at the end."
The Falcons hope to be saying the same thing six weeks from now. And if Gonzalez is right, they are peaking at the perfect time.