ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons have approached the past three games with a playoff attitude - win or go home. That hasn't worked.
But in the wacky NFC, where second chances come three and four times, there still is a way for the 7-7 Falcons to earn one of the wild-card spots even if they lose to Carolina today inside the Georgia Dome.
"We knew it was going to come down to the last couple games, and here we are," said tight end Alge Crumpler. "The whole league has been up and down all year. We knew it was going to be like this."
Atlanta is one of seven teams fighting for one of three wild-card spots.
The easiest way for the Falcons to qualify is to win today and at Philadelphia on New Year's Eve, and get a loss from the New York Giants or a victory by Dallas. If Atlanta loses to the Panthers, who bring a 6-8 record and an outside chance of the playoffs, the Falcons must hope for losses by the Giants on Sunday and Philadelphia on Monday to force a must-win regular season finale at Philadelphia.
Confusing, for sure. But all the scenarios don't matter if Atlanta can't find a way to start fast and win at home.
"We can't think of the scenarios," running back Warrick Dunn said. "We know as a team, we have to do our part. If we win, things will take care of themselves. That's all we have to worry about."
The Falcons have lost three consecutive games at home, falling behind 14-0 in all three games. The Panthers are just as perplexing, having lost three in a row on the road and four in a row overall. To make matters worse, Carolina probably won't have starting quarterback Jake Delhomme, who hasn't played or practiced since suffering ligament damage in his right thumb on Dec. 4.
Atlanta beat Carolina 20-6 in the season-opener, but the Falcons have lost to two last-place division teams -- Detroit and Cleveland - at home.
Today's winner of the will be part of the playoff mix during the final week of the regular season.
"Nobody wants to go home," Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
"The good thing about the NFC is it's wide open. Anybody can win it."
For Atlanta, the first five minutes usually sets the tone.
"A fast start would help," coach Jim Mora said. "They come in there and support us and we need to give them something to get jacked about. You saw what happened when we came back last week, it got wild again. We have to come out and start fast. We haven't done that. Our mindset is to come out and get going. We want to get the crowd into it. We want to send them home with a Merry Christmas."
Lost in Mike Vick's single-season rushing record of 990 yards is the fact he also has a career-high 19 touchdown passes. If he runs for 10 more yards, he and Dunn (1,053 yards) would be the first quarterback-running back tandem to each run for 1,000 yards.
None of that will matter to Vick if Atlanta can't parlay that success into victories.
"It is do or die," he said. "The season really comes down to the final two games. Throughout everything that has happened this year, we still have a chance."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.