CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Carolina Panthers kept following good seasons with bad ones, they could always deflect some of the criticism by pointing to that older franchise down I-85 that had an even worse resume in building a consistent winner.
A year after ending their dubious 44-year streak of never posting consecutive winning seasons, the Atlanta Falcons (10-2) not only have guaranteed three in a row, they carry the NFC's best record into today's matchup with the downtrodden Panthers (1-11) in what looks like the biggest mismatch of Week 14.
Talk about franchises moving in different directions.
"I think coming into the season we knew we had the right guys in the right spots," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.
With Ryan back to his late-game heroics, running back Michael Turner rounding into form and a run-stuffing defense, Atlanta can clinch a playoff berth with its seventh straight victory and a little help.
As the Falcons ride their best three-year stretch, Ryan points to the season-closing three-game winning streak last season.
It was too late to capture a playoff berth, but ended all the talk about failing to post consecutive winning years.
"I know for the organization it was a really good thing," Ryan said. "It was a good thing to kind of knock that one off and know we have had the back-to-back winning seasons. That's something that won't be talked about around here anymore."
Winning of any kind is a foreign concept in Carolina these days. Just two years removed from going 12-4 and capturing the NFC South, the Panthers are counting the days to a likely coaching change and — if they lose out — collecting the No. 1 overall draft pick.
"There's no quit in this team," insisted defensive end Everette Brown.
The Panthers have never been able to make the good times last, and the Falcons have now made them the oldest remaining NFL team to not post consecutive winning years.
After a surprise run to the NFC championship game in the 1996 season in the second year of the franchise, they sunk to 7-9. A trip to the Super Bowl in 2003 was followed by a 7-9 season. A berth in the NFC title game in 2005 was followed by an 8-8 campaign. Now after going 8-8 last year, the bottom has fallen out.
"I don't think our team's results have been related to effort at all," coach John Fox said.
Fox's slight jabs at management's decision to begin a youth movement after he was denied a contract extension has made for an odd, uncomfortable year.
After Carolina blew a 14-0 lead by allowing 31 unanswered points to Seattle last week in its sixth straight loss, owner Jerry Richardson ended his silence by apologizing for the season in a letter sent to fans.
Yet when Fox was asked about the letter, he quickly replied, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
With Fox's rift with Richardson in the open, he'll again have to lean on rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has thrown 169 passes since his lone touchdown pass more than two months ago. The NFL's lowest-scoring team will try to rely on an improved ground game, but the Falcons rank eighth in the league in stopping the run.
Atlanta's gaudy record has a lot to do with keeping turnovers and penalties to a minimum and coming through in the clutch.
The latest comeback victory came when it erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit last Sunday at Tampa Bay.
As Turner went over 1,000 yards rushing, Ryan found Michael Jenkins for the game-winning, 9-yard touchdown pass.
"The biggest thing it tells us is we've got resolve," Ryan said.
The victory kept Atlanta a game up on New Orleans in the NFC South. The Falcons will clinch a playoff berth with a win over Carolina and if two of the following three teams — the Giants, Eagles and Packers — lose today.
"We've been fortunate enough to win a lot of tight games and a very good learning experience for our team," said Mike Smith, the first coach in Falcons' history to post two 10-win seasons. "We have been lucky in terms of injuries as well and those are all factors that contribute to your success."
The good fortune seemingly continues now with the schedule. Atlanta gets to face the Panthers twice over the final four weeks.
"They're a beatable team," Brown said of the Falcons. "You look at their record and you take it for what it is. And you look at the film and you also take that for what it is. When you look at film, there are areas that we can take advantage of that will help us be successful (today) — and can be victorious."
Bold words for a player on a team with one victory. But perhaps because of their modest history, there's some reluctance out there in declaring the Falcons one of the NFL's best.
"I'm pretty sure if Dallas was 10-2 they'd be the talk of the town," receiver Roddy White said. "We're the Falcons and we are who we are. We've got 10 wins and you get what you earn in this league and we'll go from there."