FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Mike Smith believes it's too early for the Atlanta Falcons to reflect on defying expectations and making the playoffs.
The first-year head coach wants his players satisfied only with improving each week and taking incremental steps toward accomplishing the goal of winning Atlanta's first Super Bowl.
"I don't think the season's come to an end yet, and you're really judged on the whole piece of work," Smith said this week. "I'm very pleased with the way we've played up to this point, and we hope that it goes a few more weeks."
The Falcons (10-5) still have a chance to earn the NFC's No. 2 seed with a victory Sunday over St. Louis (2-13) and a loss by Carolina at New Orleans. If the outcome of each game is favorable, Atlanta would have a bye and host a game in the NFC's divisional round on Jan. 10 or 11.
"That's the greatest thing about it," defensive end John Abraham said. "We haven't reached even our cruising altitude yet. We can still get higher and higher."
Opinions differ in the Falcons' locker room how the team went from four victories last year to 10 this season. Abraham, whose 16½ sacks rank third in the NFL, insists that he knew during a blowout win over Detroit in the opener that the roster had vast potential. As for running back Michael Turner, who leads the league with 16 touchdowns rushing and ranks second with 1,491 yards, a story line became evident with a Week 5 victory at Green Bay that followed a divisional loss in the previous game, 24-9 at Carolina.
"That was probably our first true test," Turner said. "It showed that we could go on the road and win against a quality team. That was probably the game that really, the whole team started to believe."
In one sense, a potentially impressionable rookie like quarterback Matt Ryan or linebacker Curtis Lofton might have developed a winning mind-set in a shorter time than a long-time veteran such as Keith Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker who has played under four full-time coaches in Atlanta (Dan Reeves, Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino and Smith), as well as two interims (Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas) since 2003. Nobody could've prepared for last year, which began with a federal indictment of Michael Vick and ended with the quarterback incarcerated and Petrino coaching at Arkansas.
"No distractions this year whatsoever," Brooking said. "We have a lot of professionals on this team, and football is very important to them. They maximize each and every opportunity that we have to get better."
Abraham wondered many times in 2007 why Petrino didn't change his aloof approach with players after the team had such an abysmal start. The decision in late October, however, to cut defensive tackle Grady Jackson told Abraham that Petrino cared more about crafting a personal agenda than with winning football games.
Under Petrino, players were not allowed to speak above a whisper during mandated team dinners on the nights before a game. Petrino routinely made no eye contact with players in the hallways of the team complex, and it was expected that nobody would address the head coach unless he spoke to them first.
The hiring of Smith changed player-coach relationships for the better. Smith meets weekly with players 30 and older so the coaching staff can keep open lines of communication with the locker room. He takes care to walk through the training room regularly and check on injured players getting treatment.
Most of Smith's tactics have worked if you consider that Atlanta will enter Week 17 without consecutive losses.
"It's just tough if you're not sure about the person you have who's leading you," Abraham said. "This year, we're very sure of who we have and very sure of what kind of team we are. Last year was a little different. We didn't know exactly what was expected, what we were supposed to do and what we were not supposed to do."
Ryan's composure, both on and off the field, might have meant more to the Falcons than any other windfall realized in 2008. The No. 3 overall draft pick seemed to learn quickly from every mistake he made.
"Obviously the big question was how well Matt would perform as a rookie quarterback," Brooking said. "We knew there'd be bumps in the road, but it's unbelievable what he's done in such a short period of time with the guys on our offense."
Without Ryan taking every snap and making so many accurate reads and throws, the Falcons might have squandered their potential. But the last-second victory over Chicago, coming a week after the surprising win at Green Bay, allowed Atlanta to enter its bye week 4-2. What's more, the Falcons beat the Bears in uncommon fashion: Chicago took a one-point lead with 11 seconds remaining, but the Bears pooched a kickoff to Harry Douglas and then gave up Ryan's sideline pass to Michael Jenkins that covered 26 yards.
With 1 second to go, Jason Elam kicked a 48-yard field goal for the 22-20 win.
"I saw too many times over my first three years here that what was supposed to go wrong usually did go wrong," said receiver Roddy White, the NFL's second-leading receiver. "We used to give up the big plays, but not anymore. I went from being a guy that dropped balls to making some tough catches, but you have to give a lot of credit to Matt for putting the ball in the right place and to our coaching staff for drawing up the plays."
Smith has carefully addressed potentially harmful issues that would affect the team. He spoke out harshly when defensive leader and starting safety Lawyer Milloy was arrested in September for DUI. Adam Jennings made too many mistakes at punt returner and was released.
Jackson, re-signed in July, was among a short list of NFL players who tested positive for a diuretic earlier this year. But Smith kept the massive nose tackle on the field and declined to discuss hypothetical scenarios until the league and the courts reached a final decision.
"We have to continue what we've done up to this point, and I think if we do, I think we'll like the outcome as a team," Smith said, "and I think the guys will like the outcome as individuals, too."