FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons finally played a stinker of a game. They don’t want it to become a habit.
The players normally get the day off after victories, so it was a rare Monday appearance for many of them at the team’s training complex after a 30-20 loss to division rival Carolina. They studied film and met with coaches, trying to figure out what went wrong.
The Falcons (11-2) already clinched the NFC South title but have struggled to win in the playoffs, so they are mindful of having momentum going into the postseason.
The last-place Panthers (4-9) raced to a 23-0 lead midway through Sunday’s 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.”
The Falcons will have to turn their attention to playing host to the defending Super Bowl champions 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.
Smith was especially troubled by his team’s dismal performance Sunday on third downs – both offensively and defensively. The Falcons converted just 2 of 8 times, while the Panthers came through on 9 of 15.
“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 mindset. 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.”