ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are coming off their worst performance of the season.
This is when they're usually at their best.
In a matchup between NFL powerhouses, the Falcons head into Sunday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants looking to extend a most remarkable streak.
It's been three years since Atlanta lost back-to-back games.
With the playoffs right around the corner, the Falcons don't want to start now.
"We're a veteran team," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We have guys who understand that when you don't play your best, you get right back in there and start on the next opponent."
According to STATS LLC, the Falcons have the longest active streak since consecutive losses at 48 games, dating to a 26-23 setback to New Orleans on Dec. 13, 2009. (Next on the list is Green Bay at 31 games.) Only three times in Mike Smith's nearly five years as coach has Atlanta dropped back-to-back games, and all came in that injury plagued '09 season.
Time again to put that trademark to the test.
Last week, the Falcons (11-2) were blown out by last-place Carolina, losing 30-20 in a game that wasn't really that close.
Smith is confident his team will respond like it usually does.
"You want to stop the streak at one," he said. "That's what we've talked about from the very beginning. You've got to flush the previous game out as quickly as possible. You've got to make your corrections and move on. Don't let the last game have an effect on the next game."
The Falcons don't have nearly as much riding on this contest as the Giants (8-5), who hold a tenuous one-game lead over both Dallas and Washington in the NFC East.
Atlanta has already clinched the NFC South and, despite the loss to the Panthers, still has the inside track to home-field advantage through the conference playoffs. In fact, the Falcons will lock that up with two weeks remaining if they beat New York, and both Green Bay and San Francisco lose tough road games (the Packers play at Chicago, while the 49ers travel to New England).
The Giants just want to get back to the playoffs. This is about the time when they usually begin their push.
"We've become very accustomed to this," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "We relish this role: big games in December. Especially on the road, we've had a lot of success."
At least the Giants control their destiny. If they win their last three, they're in. It won't matter what the Cowboys and the Redskins do.
"It's a much better feeling to know that if we take care of all the business, we don't have to look over our shoulders or worry," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "We'll be where we want to be when we started this season, where we set out to be."
While the Falcons would prefer to forget their last outing, the Giants are coming off a dominating 52-27 win over New Orleans, a compelling sign that Tom Coughlin will, as always, have his team playing its best with the playoffs approaching.
The longtime coach was asked his secret.
"Just keep very vigilant about where we are, knowing this team and the circumstances we're in," Coughlin said. "Just constantly being aware of the mental position that our team is in, as well as the physical. Then, always being alert to recognize the things to challenge our team to make them be the best they can be."
Last Sunday, rookie David Wilson became the first player in NFL history to rush for 100 yards and have more than 200 yards on returns, setting a franchise record with 327 all-purpose yards. His emergence makes it easier to cope with the possible absence of running back Ahmad Bradshaw, hobbled by a knee injury.
Eli Manning threw four touchdown passes against the Saints, while the bend-but-don't-break defense chipped in by forcing four turnovers, including two interceptions from safety Stevie Brown.
"Our confidence is high," Brown said. "Everybody's believing in this thing."
If they need even more confidence, the Giants can look back on the humiliating defeat they handed the Falcons in the opening round of the playoffs last season, holding Atlanta's high-powered offense off the scoreboard in a 24-2 rout. The dominating performance propelled New York toward its second Super Bowl title in the last five seasons, while the Falcons dealt with another postseason flop.
They have yet to win a playoff game under Smith, going 0-3.
"One of the motivations that pushes you is when you fall short in the playoffs," Ryan said. "But we're a different football team than we were last year. They're a different team that they were in the playoffs last year. I think this game is important because of what's in front of us. We have an opportunity to do what we want to do in the regular season. It starts Sunday."
The Giants aren't looking back, either.
"We can't say enough about the (Falcons) team," Tuck said. "It's different than the one we played in the playoffs. Different coordinators. Same guys but different scheme. So we've got to do our homework."
While the Falcons have stressed the importance of playing their best football heading into the postseason — and plenty feel this game, in particular, is a chance to make a major statement — John Abraham doesn't want to put too much importance on any regular-season contest.
The defensive end pointed out Atlanta went into the playoffs in 2008 against an Arizona team that had lost four of its last six. The Cardinals beat the Falcons and two more teams on their way to the Super Bowl.
"When the playoffs come, all that other stuff is wiped out," Abraham said. "Yeah, we're a playoff team right now, and we'd like home field and all this and all that. But when the postseason comes, that's when I start counting."
Looking to close his 16-year career with a Super Bowl title, tight end Tony Gonzalez said the loss to Carolina might have come at a good time, reminding the Falcons not to forget the journey on the way to the ultimate goal.
"I hate to call it wake-up call, because you shouldn't need that, especially because of the type of team we think we are," he said. "But maybe it was. I don't know. Whatever it was, we've got to use that as motivation to say, 'You know what? We've got something special here and we've got to go out and prove it this week.'"