Two of the elder statesmen on the Falcons are leading the mental charge into the playoffs this season.
Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure have seen and done a lot in during their 15 and 13 seasons in the league, including a few playoff losses. Gonzalez has never won a playoff game in his decorated career and McClure, who has spent his entire professional life with the Falcons, has seen six games in the playoffs with only two wins to show for it.
Last season's playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the second round admittedly stung the Falcons. This year they've returned and while they've experienced some inconsistent moments, they enter the playoffs at 10-6, winning three of their final four games.
All season the talk has been about playing the next game and limiting the focus to that single event. That mentality helped prevent the Falcons from back-to-back losses all season and rebounding from tough losses like the ones they experienced to the Saints in Weeks 10 and 16 and to the Packers in Week 5.
That limited, but wise, outlook on football games is helpful to the Falcons now as they prepare to face the Giants in the first round Sunday. For many players in the locker room, this will be their third trip to the playoffs although they're still searching for their first playoff win under head coach Mike Smith.
Everything changes in the playoffs, but it doesn't mean the mental approach does. Heightened media attention and national television exposure are things well beyond the players' control.
"It's just the next game," McClure said. "It's obviously the playoffs. The speed is faster. I'm sure the crowd will be louder. Everything rises up a little bit in the playoffs, but it's our next game and that's the only way we think about it."
Both McClure and Gonzalez feel a bit of nostalgia entering this weekend after playing in the league for so long. McClure has stuck with the Falcons long enough to finally see a consistent winner
"We've been through some lean times," the center said. "We've been through some good times. I've been here 13 years. This has been the most consistent the team's been. It's been nice. Early in my career it was up one year and down one year. Now, we've had success over a period of time. It's fun to play when you're having this kind of success."
Gonzalez will be headed for the Hall of Fame when his career is done. There has been quiet speculation all season about Gonzalez' decisions on the future after this year. The tight end was scheduled to be a free agent, but last Sunday the Falcons signed him to a one-year contract extension.
He said it was something he'd thought about throughout the season, speaking with his family multiple times. The level of his play has remained consistent and he believes he's on a winner, with a shot to perform better than last year's team did in the playoffs. In the end, it was a decision he was happy with.
"We're a good football team and I think we're going to be good for a while," he said. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come back here. This team, I think we'll be ready."
Sunday will be Gonzalez' fifth playoff game and a win will be his first, but it's not something he thinks he's going to be overly emotional about. That kind of emotion is on hold for the real goal for him and his teammates.
"(A win) would mean a lot to me, but at the same time, that's not our goal," he said. "After the game if we're fortunate to win, don't expect me to be elated. Ask me after the Super Bowl. That's where I'll be truly excited. The goal is not to win a playoff game; it's about winning a couple of playoff games."
In the end, Gonzalez knows whatever happens this season and next, he's at peace with what he's accomplished. He's performance is as impressive as his longevity in the game. He's thankful for every opportunity he's earned.
"I've seen guys retire and say they don't feel like their career was as complete as it could have been," he said. "I have soaked this league up for everything it's worth, having fun. I don't regret anything. I don't regret being in Kansas City. It's been fun. I don't regret anything so why would I take that approach?"
The teammates that have tried to honor Gonzalez and McClure in so many different ways this season would love nothing more than to give a few guys from the "Over-30 Club" a playoff win and then some.
Eli-te Manning:By most standards, Giants QB Eli Manning has had a career year, statistically better than his 2007 Super Bowl championship season.
This season, he was named to his second Pro Bowl and ranks among the league leaders in most quarterback statistical categories.
In many ways Manning's season has been identical to Matt Ryan's. Both have been significant reasons for the opening up of their offenses. Both have guided their offenses through stretches this season where the run game wasn't as effective as it has been traditionally. Both have offensive lines that protect them well.
Manning's protection is key and Atlanta's pass rush has improved late in the season. The Falcons have eight sacks in the season's final three games. To win against New York's offense, Atlanta will need to bring the same kind of pressure that they've been showing to end the season.
The Giants quarterback's talent is in his smarts, recognizing where pressure is coming from and letting his receivers make plays after the catch. To slow down the quick strikes they're capable of, defensive end John Abraham said they want to make him move around more than he wants to.
"(We're) pretty much trying to get as much pressure as possible," Abraham said. "He's a smart guy. He does a great job with his play-action fakes and getting the ball out quick. In order for us to have a good day, we'll have to get in his face and get him to move out of the pocket."
Just as the stats show the similarities between Manning and Ryan, his Falcons teammates are likely see it when they turn on the film. Like Ryan, they see a quarterback in Manning with the intangibles to overcome any situation in a game.
"He's not afraid to make a mistake," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "If he does make a mistake, he'll come back and do what he does. He'll try to make a play. He's not playing not to lose, he's trying to win."
Up And Running:In each of the Giants' three wins in their final four games of the season they rushed for over 100 yards, highlighted by a 115-yard effort in Week 16's win over the Jets.
The running game has not been very effective for New York this season. They finished this year ranked last in the NFL with 89.2 yards per game on the ground. The increase they've seen in recent weeks is a result of focusing more on the run as they made their run to the playoffs. The Giants would prefer to be running the ball better than they have this season while they're in the playoffs.
Though they reached the 100-yard benchmark in their three wins, they weren't very efficient with their runs. Against Dallas twice in the final stretch they averaged 3.4 yards per carry.
Against the Jets they were an improved 4.4 yards per carry.
The Falcons' run defense spent the majority of the season in the top three in the league, but slipped to a still-respectful sixth in the NFL, allowing 97 yards per game. If Atlanta can take the run away from the Giants, a one-dimensional offense will emerge. Though that one-dimensional passing attack can be deadly with New York's playmakers at wide receiver, it's still a Falcons' advantage.
On the flipside, the Giants' defense can be run on. This season they're allowing 121.2 yards per game, landing them at No. 19 in the league.
After a 251-yard rushing effort in the final game of the season against Tampa Bay, the Atlanta running game appears to be back on track and primed for a duel with the Giants run D.
Injury Report:The Falcons players who routinely get Wednesdays off were off once again this week. Tony Gonzalez, Todd McClure, John Abraham and Michael Turner all were given their usual maintenance day off.
Julio Jones (thumb), Peria Jerry (calf), Reggie Kelly (back), Curtis Lofton (ankle), Jason Snelling (knee), Roddy White (hip) were all limited in practice.
Harry Douglas (groin), Brent Grimes (knee), Kerry Meier (knee), William Moore (groin), Stephen Nicholas (toe), Michael Palmer (knee), and Sean Weatherspoon (head) all did not practice on Wednesday.
"Hopefully, we'll get the majority of these guys back tomorrow, which I anticipate we will," Smith said.
Earlier this week the head coach said it would be doubtful that Nicholas would return this week.
Smith said he anticipates that Weatherspoon would return to practice on Thursday.
For the Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) did not practice.
Tight end Jake Ballard (knee), running back Da'Rel Scott (knee) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee) were limited.