By Mark Bradley The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Dunta Robinson, starting cornerback, had a question. “Is ‘winmanship’ a word?” he asked. Then, explaining: “Asante (Samuel, other cornerback) just said it.”
Said Thomas DeCoud, free safety: “Might have to contact Webster’s on this one.”
Such was the mood in the Atlanta Falcons’ locker room this week — light, confident, verbose. Asked if this team was ready to win a playoff game, DeCoud said: “Most definitely.”
Then again, a visitor noted that he’d asked the same question in the same locker room 53 weeks ago and gotten the same answer. Speaking back then, the since-departed-for-New-Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton said: “It is (time to win). We’re not happy just being here. The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.”
Three days later, the duly primed Falcons lost in the Meadowlands. Not that anybody expected any Falcon to say in January 2012, “Are we ready to win? Actually, I think we’re ready to get beat 24-2.” But still: Every playoff team insists it’s going to win the Super Bowl, and every year, every playoff team except one is wrong.
The visitor noted that, headed into the postseason, the Falcons of last season had expressed the same sentiments of the Falcons of this season. Said DeCoud: “We may have felt mentally ready, but actually we weren’t mature enough.”
And that might have been true. The Falcons as we know them were essentially born in 2008, the year Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith and Matt Ryan and Michael Turner arrived. They overachieved to make the playoffs that season and were beaten at Arizona in Round 1. In 2010 they were the NFC’s No. 1 seed but were beaten 48-21 by Green Bay, and last January they had to play the seasoned Giants on the road.
This time there can be no excuses. The Falcons are playing at home after a week’s rest against a West Coast team with a rookie quarterback. Yes, the Seahawks are good. After five years of building, the Falcons should be better.
Said Samuel, imported from Philadelphia to add a touch of both brass and class: “We’ve got to put aside our selfishness for the common good — and win.”
Of the eight remaining teams, the burden of proof would seem to fall hardest on the franchise that has made the playoffs four times in five seasons but hasn’t lingered long.
Said DeCoud: “It’s not so much a sense of external pressure; it’s more a sense of pride.”
See, the Falcons are tired of hearing that they haven’t won a postseason game, and the only way to stop it is to win one. And they have, contrary to popular belief, had chances. They led at halftime in Arizona and led early against the Packers and Giants. Those games came down, as postseason games always do, to plays made and unmade.
DeCoud: “That’s what coach Smith has been preaching — the game will come down to four or so plays, and you never know which ones they’re going to be.” The law of averages suggests that the Falcons are past due to make those plays, and it can’t hurt that they’re playing at home.
Said DeCoud, speaking of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson: “He’s coming into the (Georgia) Dome, and that’s going to be a different atmosphere for him.”
The Falcons have a point to prove this January, and they seem to welcome the chance. Then again, they talked the same assured talk last year, and the year before that and in January 2009, too. And no one can say for certain that this team is different until it plays beyond Week 1. But this one, at least to someone who has been tracking this franchise for nearly 30 years, looks the part.
“Talent-wise, character-wise, we’ve matured,” DeCoud said. “We understand the position we’re in. We’ve all matured together. We’ve jelled as an organization.”
A lot of neutral observers like the Seahawks’ chances, same as they liked the Packers’ chances two years ago. A lot of folks believe the Falcons aren’t as good as their record. This correspondent believes — and has believed for a while — that these Falcons are more talented than at any time in franchise history and better-coached than they’ve been since the Super Bowl run of January 1999.
This correspondent believes, at long last, that they’re ready to practice some “winmanship” on the big stage. This time for sure.