The Falcons found all the momentum they were looking for, heading into the playoffs after Sunday's 45-24 win over the Bucs.
Specifically, Atlanta got the running game back on track, a phase of their game that has been extremely effective in recent seasons, led by running back Michael Turner.
Turner's day was done after the first half when his 17 carries produced 172 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The running back had a record setting day, running for an 81-yard score, the second-longest of his career, and his first touchdown of the game, on fourth-and-1, gave him the franchise record for most touchdowns in a career with 49.
The record-setting run didn't come easy, but showed the dominance of Atlanta's running game when it's going right. Turner capped seven straight runs with the 1-yard plunge on the final down to help give the Falcons a 28-0 lead.
With the Falcons taking over that possession on Tampa's 30-yard line, head coach Mike Smith knew Turner could get the yards necessary for a score on a short field. Smith kept calling Turner's number and the running back said a few encouraging words to his offensive linemen just before the touchdown run.
"(Smith) knew we were close," Turner said. "Close, close, close. He just finally wanted to get it in there. They were getting worn down, you could tell. They were getting tired; you could sense it in them. I told the guys, I gave them a little extra incentive. I told them it was for the record. 'This is huge, it's an important touchdown.' They got juiced up, fired up a little bit and went out there and knocked everybody off the ball."
It capped a week of discussion between Turner and his linemen about bringing the running game back up to par with Atlanta's passing attack. The runners know if they can continue to churn out positive yards, the offense can be balanced and dangerous.
"That was the talk all week between the O-line and myself, to get some production out of the run game," Turner said. "We'd been lagging a little bit. We've been winning some games still, but that's not how we want to play and not how we want to produce out there or how we want to look on film. We made it a point, since it's our last game, to get a little tune-up before the playoffs and go out there and do something."
Now in the playoffs, Atlanta knows it'll need its running game against their first-round opponent, the New York Giants. The NFC East champs feature a feroucious pass rush and the best way to slow down a pass rush is to run the ball effectively. It's a playoff formula for success and it's a proven one.
The Giants run defense is ranked 19th in the league, allowing 121.2 rushing yards per game. On the flip side, their pass rush is tied for second in the NFL with 48 sacks.
If Turner and the line can produce similar results as they did against the Bucs, the Falcons match up favorably against New York. Factor in the variable of touchy weather in New York and the running game becomes even more magnified.
Week 17 was Turner's first 100-yard game in six weeks. Smith identified the run production as something that was trending in the wrong direction and scheme, coaching and player analysis went into play over last week to ensure things got corrected. Turner has been working through some late-season injuries, but hasn't missed any game time.
Smith said he felt like some of the extra rest he's been giving his feature back paid off on Sunday and could continue to do so into the playoffs.
"We've had Michael on a routine where he has not been practicing on Wednesday and sometimes even into Thursday, practicing on a limited basis to keep him fresh, and I think we saw a fresh running back (Sunday) in the ballgame," Smith said. "But it was nice for us knowing that we could control the line of scrimmage in that game and I think, moving forward, that will help us."
With a fresh Turner, a renewed balance on offense and some positive momentum heading into the playoffs, the Falcons have the potential of a tough out in playoff football where anything can happen.