NFC South title is only first step for Falcons

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons aren’t too impressed with winning their second NFC title in three years.

Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux (from left), Thomas DeCoud and Corey Peters helped force Drew Brees into five picks last week.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux (from left), Thomas DeCoud and Corey Peters helped force Drew Brees into five picks last week.

In fact, the latest division championship hardly stirred excitement when coach Mike Smith congratulated the players on Tuesday.

“We’ve won the division before, so it’s not that big of a deal, you know what I mean?” receiver Roddy White said. “When coach said, ‘Congratulations,’ nobody was woo-wooing or nothing like that, which is good.

“We’ve got our eye on the big prize.”

First among those goals is to earn the top playoff seed and secure home-field advantage through the conference title game.

The Falcons are mindful, however, that their 2.5-game lead in the NFC is no guarantee, particularly after earning the No. 1 seed two years ago and collapsing in a second-round blowout loss to Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.

Linebacker Sean Weather­spoon believes the entire team knows that there’s too much at stake to feel complacent.

“You have to be happy with where you’re at right now, but ultimately it’s all about finishing it,” Weatherspoon said. “We set our goals high. That’s just part of the step, so now it’s on to the next part.”

Smith did his part to keep players energized by giving the team four days off following last Thursday’s home win over New Orleans. The mini-bye week, as Weatherspoon calls it, marked the second time this season that Smith rewarded his team for winning.

After an Oct. 14 home victory over Oakland that improved the Falcons to 6-0, Smith gave the players an entire week off. Center Todd McClure, now in his 14th season, credits the fifth-year coach with having a good feel for knowing when to motivate his players and when to back off.

“Smitty knows this locker room,” McClure said. “He’s down here a bunch. He knows how everybody’s feeling physically. He knows when we need rest. He knows when we need to turn it on and when we need to go harder and keep the pads on in practice. He’s got a great vibe of the locker room, and I think that’s what’s making him successful as a head coach.”

Extra rest could help over the next four games as cornerback Asante Samuel (shoulder) and nose tackle Peria Jerry (quadriceps) try to rehab their way back.

Though Smith said that Jerry might practice today as the Falcons (11-1) install their game plan for Sunday’s visit to Carolina (3-9), he added that it was too early to predict Samuel’s status.

The Falcons were encouraged, however, that Christopher Owens played one his better games after Samuel lasted just three snaps against the Saints.

Running back Michael Turner believes having backups like Owens compete at a high level fuels confidence of the entire team and keeps Atlanta on track to keep winning.

“The last couple of years it’s come down pretty tight at the end (of the regular season), but to get that part out of the way – that first step – is pretty good,” he said.

“Now, with so many different contributing to the team’s overall success, we can finish out the regular season strong.”

REMAINING SCHEDULE

SUNDAY: at Panthers (3-9)

DEC. 16: Giants (7-5)

DEC. 22: at Lions (4-8)

DEC. 30: vs. Bucs (6-6)


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