FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons finally played a stinker of a game.
They don't want it to become a habit.
Certainly not at this time of year.
The Falcons (11-2) already clinched the NFC South title but have struggled to win in the playoffs, so they are especially mindful of having some momentum going into this postseason.
"A lot of teams get hot at the right time. They can string a couple of wins together and carry that into the postseason," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "On the other side of the coin, you definitely don't want to drop a couple of games going into the postseason, because that will be in the back of your mind and keep you from progressing in the postseason like you want to."
The players normally get the day off after victories, so it was a rare Monday appearance for many of them at the team's suburban training complex. They studied film and met with the coaches, trying to figure out what went wrong in their worst performance of the season.
Atlanta lost to division rival Carolina 30-20 in a game that wasn't really that close. The last-place Panthers (4-9) raced to a 23-0 lead midway through the third quarter and were never seriously challenged.
"We didn't play up to our standards in any phase," coach Mike Smith said. "The first thing you have to do is make the corrections from the tape of the game. Believe me, there were plenty of them in all three phases."
After taking 24 hours to review their shoddy performance, the Falcons will turn their attention to hosting the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday. The New York Giants (8-5) are clinging to first in the NFC East and desperate for a win to stay in front of Washington and Dallas.
Last season, the Giants routed the Falcons in the opening round of the playoffs 24-2 — the third straight one-and-done postseason appearance for Atlanta since Smith took over in 2008.
These guys know they can't afford another postseason flop.
"The teams playing their best football at the end of the season are usually the teams that get to where they want to be in the last ballgame," Smith said.
For some reason, the Falcons looked totally flat against Carolina, a team going nowhere that played with a fire and passion totally missing on the Atlanta side. The Panthers took 28 of the first 34 snaps and built a 356-86 edge in total yards before the visiting team showed any sign of life.
At that point, it was far too late.
Smith was especially troubled by his team's dismal performance on third downs — both offensively and defensively. The Falcons converted just 2 of 8 times, while the Panthers came through on 9 of 15. That's why Carolina built a commanding edge in time of possession, holding the ball more than 10½ minutes longer than Atlanta.
"We weren't the type of team we wanted to be, that's for sure," Smith said. "You kind of get behind the eight ball when you can't get off the field on third down. We've got to be much better on both sides of the ball on third down."
Despite their impressive record, the Falcons have struggled at times against seemingly inferior opponents, leading a number of pundits to speculate that the team is headed for more disappointment in the playoffs. Naturally, the loss to the Panthers stirred up even more doubts about Atlanta's ability to make a deep run in January.
DeCoud shrugged off the negativity.
"We can't be tuned into that type of stuff," he said. "After a while, that stuff becomes a distraction."
The Falcons know the skeptics will become even louder if they lose two in a row. Sure, they still have the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but that didn't do them a bit of good in 2010, when they were routed at home by the Green Bay Packers.
After losing to Carolina, Smith knows his team must send a clear signal to the rest of the league: Beware of Atlanta in the playoffs.
"It's very important," he said. "There are a lot of things that are going to happen over the next four weeks that affect the Atlanta Falcons and affect probably eight or nine other teams in the league. That's what makes it fun. We've got to go out, first and foremost, and play our best football here in the fourth quarter" of the season.
Obviously, that was the goal last week, as well.
"We've just got to move on," offensive guard Justin Blalock said. "We have gotten to this point because of a certain mind-set. You have to have a short-term memory and hope there's not too many days like that one yesterday. But there's going to be some."