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Bair: Securing one-score wins proof Arthur Smith is impacting Falcons culture

Rookie head coach establishing confidence, proper late-game mindset required to win close games


ATLANTA – Cordarrelle Patterson said the Falcons have to stop giving their fans heart attacks. That was back in early October, following a dramatic win in New Orleans.

The Falcons have failed in that effort.

So many of their games have been decided late, on a huge play. The good part: they most always result in a Falcons victory.

The Falcons are 7-2 in one-score games, a tally improved after Sunday’s 20-16 victory over the Detroit Lions that came down to the last minute. Again.

Foye Oluokun’s interception with 39 seconds left sealed it despite the Falcons being in a tough spot.

The Lions were nine yards from pay dirt. Straits were dire. The situation was, well, tense.

Oluokun stepped up when it mattered most, securing the Falcons' seventh victory this season. Each dub has been a once-score game.

There have been plenty of lopsided losses counter success during in an up-and-down season, but the Falcons have been really good in dramatic moments. The Falcons often create tough situations themselves, after letting larger leads reduce to uncomfortable points. That's not ideal, but don't forget this: there are no style points.

Did you win or did you lose? That's all that matters. These Falcons have made being on the right side of tense moments routine.

"That has been our ethos. Find a way to win," head coach Arthur Smith said in his postgame press conference. "You can fact check me here, but I believe we're 7-2 in one-score games. We're trying to create a culture of winning, of playing as a team and playing smart, situational football."

Maybe that'll be a lasting impact from Arthur Smith's rookie season, that he has built a culture and a mentality that won't let the Falcons won't wilt under pressure. That would be a major step forward, especially after previous failures in those moments. During the 2020 campaign, by contrast, the Falcons were 2-8 in one-score games.

The Falcons have flipped that script under Smith. If the Falcons remain tough under duress moving forward, if that's what Smith's teams become known for, we'll be able to look to this 2021 squad for the origin story.

So much changes between seasons -- little carries over from one winter to the following spring. That's true even for good teams with stable rosters in good salary-cap standing.

The Falcons will have significant turnover this offseason during an ongoing transition period. While the 2022 team will form its own identity, there's room for some fundamental carryover from Smith's first season. There will be enough roster continuity to carry this year's lessons forward. They will be standard bearers for what Smith expects.

Smith has often said head coaches never get a second chance to establish a proper culture, a practice tone, a standard for what's acceptable on their watch. It's also about establishing a mindset, about learning how to win and performing under pressure, with the confidence required to do so.

Going from "here we go again," to "we've got this" would be a massive step in the right direction.

"It's crazy, because -- I mean -- last year we were not 7-2 in these type of games [last year]," Oluokun said. "This year, we have definitely put an emphasis on situational football, how to handle certain situations and stuff. If you really look at a lot of NFL games they come down to one possession. If you know what you're doing down the stretch, even at the end of the second quarter going into half, lapping them. Good teams that win? That's what they do. They know how to win situational football moments."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions during Week 16.

Playing quality situational football is key.

So is the confidence that you'll do well down the stretch.

Linebacker Brandon Copeland eloquently described the core principle of doing well in those moments, and it starts before execution has a chance to play a role.

"It's about belief and conditioning," Copeland said. "I'm an honest person and can admit it hasn't always been beautiful out there. It hasn't always been textbook. But this game isn't played out on a chalkboard. This game is ugly. Sometimes it takes doing it ugly and staying persistent to get the win.

"One of the most beautiful things about this team is that, no matter what people think outside the building, ultimately, when you're in those one-score games, do you believe in the person standing next to you? Do you believe that person is going to show up? Clearly we do."

Copeland followed that statement by discussing the next step, by not letting games get so close at the end. It's often the Falcons fault that things get tight down the stretch. They've had to hold on for dear life in five of those seven wins and pull out a dramatic comeback in the other two.

Even the best teams struggle in moments and stretches. The better squads still find a way to stack Ws.

This franchise has a lot of work ahead to enter the league's upper tier. They have struggled mightily against playoff contenders. They have consistently beat teams below them, proof that, while things aren't ideal, the Falcons aren't starting from the bottom. That's a plus. While there's plenty of work remaining to be a steady playoff contender, performance under pressure is vital.

Imagine, for a second, if these Falcons weren't good under pressure. This season would feel a whole lot different.

They have been good in tense moments, and that can bond a unit together. That includes this one, which has been through some serious ups and downs in 2021.

"It's not always perfect but I think there's a confidence in each other and a belief in this team that when we go out there we can win and the expectation is that we're going to win," right guard Chris Lindstrom said. "Nothing else is good enough. Within that mindset, there is great chemistry in our team as well. There are guys pushing for each other."


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.

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