CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Falcons have hit some rough patches this season, including a recent run where they lost three of four and fell off the NFC pace.
It was a moment where a team adjusting to so much new could've spiraled.
Arthur Smith has kept that from happening. The rookie head coach has helped his team rebound from seemingly dire straits a few times this season, which has allowed them to continue playing meaningful football late in the month of December.
"The good thing about this team, and our head coach, is that he doesn't let up on us," running back Mike Davis said. "He doesn't let us get down. He makes sure we go out and execute."
The Falcons executed well enough to earn a 29-21 victory over Carolina on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, a result vital to keeping the Falcons in the mix.
Smith's role in this extends beyond play calls, scheme and game management. While some players have insinuated that he can get well, loud – passionate may be friendlier, more appropriate term – in his demands for accountability and proper execution, there's also a cerebral side to the 39-year old that's key to these rebounds. He brings objectivity to his efforts finding solutions required to keep a roster without overwhelming talent or depth improving and competitive. He also instills confidence even in his criticism, showing how close the Falcons are to righting wrongs.
"He shows us our mistakes and how easily they can be changed," Davis said. "He shows us what we can do better and once we execute it, how it looks. He makes sure that we're not down. He keeps us upbeat and shows us what we can do."
The Falcons have done better in several areas, continuing to improve even in the face of unwelcome results. Smith works to eliminate short-term narratives and the emotional shifts that come with them, keeping his players focused on steady, often incremental, signs of progress. What we're seeing is a group that has evolved, one that fights and finds ways to win even after unwelcome results.
"You want to respond and show what you're about," Smith said. "It's not going to be perfect. If you're weak minded and fixed-minded, you going to look at it as a disaster. Even with obstacles, you have to continue to work and improve. This isn't a business for soft souls. It's the NFL. Every week is hard. We have to keep getting better."
The Falcons also have to keep winning. Like, almost every week. They need to find consistency in results to surge, to make up for ground ceded in losses to Dallas, New England and Tampa Bay.
Notice how we haven't mentioned that word, you know, one that starts with "P" and ends with "layoffs."
That's by design. The Falcons will surely be included in those "in the hunt" graphics displayed during highlight shows, but they'll have to do more damage to become serious contenders.
The Falcons understand that. Linebacker Mykal Walker said some players believe they'll have to go unbeaten down the stretch to get in, that they're in the postseason already.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has seen where the Falcons sit in the conference standings, but it isn't a driving force in the team's daily work.
"I've got an understanding of where we're at," Ryan said. "I don't think you obsess over it. You have to focus on taking care of your own business and finding ways to win week-in and week-out this time of the year."
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Ryan isn't look at this final stretch as an individual entity, thinking about how often they must win to stay relevant. That's perspective learned over his long career, which could help the Falcons through this stretch.
"You make the big things little, and don't overwhelm yourself with what we have to do over the next four games," Ryan said. "You worry about what we have to do in the next one. Each week is a new challenge. Each week is a different thing. What's going to be required of us is different every week.
"We've got ourselves in a position where we're still in the mix. That's all you can ask for this time of year. You want to be in competitive games that mean something. Certainly, next week is that for us."
The Falcons have a huge game coming up against the 49ers, who are hovering within the NFC's top seven seeds. Beating them will be tough enough. There's no sense in making it harder by diverting focus looking ahead.
"I've learned, as I've gone along from all the different situations that I've been in, that it really doesn't do you any good to focus on anything further than the next opponent you're playing," Ryan said. "It's easier said than done. You have to remind guys all the time that they can't look too far ahead. It's a narrow focus. … You have to keep things simple. If we do that, we'll be okay."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.