FLOWERY BRANCH — If there’s any disadvantage to having a first-round bye in the playoffs, it’s not knowing who your opponent will be during the first week of preparation. By posting a 13-3 record, the Atlanta Falcons finished with the best record in the NFC, earning the conference’s No. 1 seed, home-field advantage and the coveted bye week in the playoffs.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said the team used its bye week the same as it would during the regular season to prepare for their first playoff game since the 2008 season. Atlanta will host the lowest advancing seed from this weekend’s Wild Card round, which will be Green Bay if it can beat the Philadelphia, or the winner of the New Orleans-Seattle game.
“We scheduled it like a bye during the regular season,” said Smith who has guided the Falcons to a 33-16 record in three seasons, including a loss to Arizona in the ‘08 playoffs. “The only thing that’s different is you really don’t know who you’re playing. We have to do work on ourselves, and that’s what we do during the bye, so it’s really not different. As a coaching staff, we’ve had to spend a little more time working on breaking our next opponent down, because there are three of them, and hypothetically, either could be the team we’re going to be playing next week.”
By working on themselves, the top priority on defense was limiting big running plays. During the regular season, the Falcons were burned by scoring runs of 83 yards by the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin, 80 yards by the Cardinals’ Tim Hightower and 50 yards by Rashard Mendenhall in overtime of the season opener, which cost Atlanta the game.
“We gave up too many explosive plays,” Smith said. “Large chunks you can’t give up, and usually those are because you miss a tackle or take a poor angle. That’s things we’re really working on as a defensive unit.”
Offensively, leading rusher Michael Turner and leading receiver Roddy White said they didn’t have any specific goals to work toward other than fine tuning and staying healthy.
“Just sharpening your sword,” said Turner, who rushed for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. “Making reads, things like that. Making sure you’re focused on the task at hand.”
White, the league’s leading receiver with 115 catches, has been hampered by a knee injury he suffered in a Nov. 7 game against Tampa Bay.
“We needed this time to get healthy,” he said. “During the course of a 16-game season, you get sore and tired. This week is for getting better. I feel good and the time was much needed.”
There was at least one element of the bye week different from a regular season bye – discussing overtime. This is the first year the NFL will enforce the new overtime rules for the playoffs.
Unlike the regular season, teams getting the ball first in overtime can no longer win on a field goal on their first possession, only a touchdown. If they kick a field goal, the other team has a chance to tie, or win with a touchdown.
“We spent about 45 minutes with our team talking about the overtime, showing them some clips from the season of different situations that, if they occurred in the overtime, how we would handle them,” Smith said. “You want to make sure your players understand the rules.”
But before the Falcons potentially find themselves in what would be their third overtime game of the season (Atlanta is 1-1 in those games), they will spend the weekend watching to find out who they’ll play next week.
“All the teams are good, so it doesn’t really matter who we play,” Falcons defensive back Brent Grimes said. “All present their set of problems, so it we’ll prepare for the them the same way – just get ready for a tough day.”
Said White,” We’ve beaten all three of those teams, so it don’t matter.”