ATLANTA — Al Davis would’ve loved these Atlanta Falcons.
All they do is win, baby.
Sure, it’s rarely with a lot of flare.
There’s no voters to impress or computers to win over in the NFL.
“Style points don’t get you a ring,” linebacker Mike Peterson was saying the other day, holding court beside his locker before practice. “Our goal is way bigger than pleasing the media or winning with style points. We’ve got some hefty goals. Everyone knows about them.”
For this team, it’s Super Bowl or bust.
With each grind-it-out win — seven of the triumphs on their 11-1 mark have been by seven points or less — the Falcons are looking more and more like a team that can finally bring the A-T-L its first Super Bowl championship. Don’t listen to the skeptics, who seem to think the inability to blow out teams is a sign of vulnerability.
The Falcons are perfectly content to win by one or two or three points, as they should be, especially when they see what happened this past week. The 49ers losing at St. Louis. The Super Bowl champion Giants falling to Washington. The Bears getting tripped up at home by Seattle.
Just win, baby.
“There’s no doormats in this league,” offensive guard Justin Blalock points out. “If you’re not playing well, you can be made to look pretty stupid in any game. They’re not all going to be pretty. But we do our best to make sure we come out on top. At the end of the day, hardly anyone is going remember any games in September or October.”
What they will remember is January.
The playoff-bound Falcons are carrying a troublesome monkey on their back; actually, more like a gorilla. Atlanta has made the postseason three of the last four years. All three times, they lasted about as long as Snooki at a Mensa meeting, including a blowout loss at home to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers as the NFC’s top seed during the 2010 season.
In all likelihood, the Falcons (11-1) will be in that No. 1 spot again, even if hardly anyone seems to think they’re the NFL’s best team. They’ve already locked up their division and hold a 2½ game lead over the next-best team in the conference with just four weeks to go.
So, why should people believe this team — with many of the same guys from the last three playoff flops — is suddenly going to shake its reputation as chokers?
For one, the Falcons have displayed impressive versatility. Some weeks, quarterback Matt Ryan has carried the Falcons on his sturdy right arm, taking advantage of perhaps the game’s most impressive trio of receivers (Roddy White, Julio Jones and Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez). Other times, it’s the defense that provides the big plays, as was the case in Atlanta’s most recent victory over New Orleans. With Ryan and the offense struggling, the defense picked off Drew Brees a career-high five times and ended his record touchdown pass streak at 54 consecutive games.
“You’ve got to find a way to get it done,” Ryan says. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve had a lot of success this year. We’ve found a lot of ways to get it done. It hasn’t always shaken out the same way. It’s a different person, a different unit, stepping up week in and week out.”
Another thing to like about this team is the close-knit locker room. A lot of the credit for that must go to general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who factors character into the evaluation process, and coach Mike Smith, who leaves little doubt he’s the boss but is willing to listen to his players, especially the veterans.
“I love the unity of this locker room,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no jerks on this team. There’s no cancers on this team. Guys love to come to work, love to compete, love to get better.”
Rest assured, getting on the Falcons bandwagon goes against everything I’ve learned over a lifetime.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Atlanta cheering for the Falcons. It was a largely an exercise in frustration, one losing season running into another, the slightest bit of hope always snuffed out quickly. They weren’t lovable like the Chicago Cubs, either. No, they were just bad. Turnovers and missed tackles. Poor coaching and botched draft picks. Gallows humor was about the only thing that got you through. Hey, did you hear about the guy who left two season tickets on the windshield of his car, hoping someone would take them? When he got back, he had four.
The Falcons reached their only Super Bowl during the 1998 season with an entertaining group that called itself the “Dirty Birds.” Of course, they found a most unique way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The night before the big game in Miami, safety Eugene Robinson, probably their most respected player, was arrested for trying to buy sex from a woman who turned out to be an undercover cop.
Robinson played anyway. Not surprisingly, he got beat for a long touchdown pass on the game’s most crucial play, the Denver Broncos romping to their second straight championship.
But, truth be told, things have changed over the last decade, ever since Arthur Blank bought the team.
Three of the five division titles in franchise’s 46-year history have come during the Blank era. Most impressively, the team bounced right back after star quarterback Michael Vick went to prison for running a dogfighting ring. Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan arrived the following year; since then, the Falcons have strung together five straight winning seasons.
Not bad, considering they had gone through their entire history, which begins in 1966, without putting together two in a row.
Now, there’s only one thing left.
Just win, baby, in the playoffs.
“We can’t steal that from Oakland. That’s their thing,” Peterson says, when reminded of the late Davis’ famous mantra as owner of the Raiders.
But he can’t help himself.
“Just win, baby,” Peterson repeats, mulling it over for just a second. “That’s nice. I like it.”