5) Mike Smith on Vic Beasley Jr.'s performance against Jacksonville:
Veteran DE John Abraham has had plenty of days where his status as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL can't be questioned. Against the Jaguars this season he had a career game, recording 3.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles. Abraham's 2011 season was up and down due to injuries he battled, but still managed to miss only one start. The defensive end was dominant down the stretch for the Falcons and in this game he said he felt as healthy as he had all season. His effort earned him a spot on our best performances of 2011 list. Heading into the game he felt good about what he was going to do and his day gave head coach Mike Smith a reason to sing his praises: "John Abraham had a monster night with three-and-a-half sacks. John started early. I believe he got into a real good rhythm. He felt very comfortable going into this game with the matchup. He said some things that he was going to do and he went out and did them. I was very happy for John because he really had a whale of a game rushing the passer."
4) Chris Owens on running down Percy Harvin:
The Falcons didn't allow a kick or punt return for a touchdown all season and Chris Owens was a big factor in that. Owens was a key player on special teams in 2011 and came up with his share of stops, but none was more important — or more impressive — than his touchdown-saving tackle of Harvin against Minnesota. With Atlanta nursing a 10-point lead with time reaming in the fourth quarter, Harvin took a kickoff 7 yards inside the endzone and made everyone miss until Owens caught up with the speedster at the 3-yard line to turn a game-changing play into a record-setting one for the wrong reasons. Harvin's run was the longest return in the NFL since 1991 that didn't result in a touchdown. Owens said he saw things developing and knew he could make a play: "You can't think. I said 'Oh, shoot' when he broke. Then I said to myself 'Go get him.' That dude is fast and I was fortunate to get him down."
3) Mike Smith on Matt Ryan's return from an ankle injury:
When the franchise quarterback goes down, everyone holds their breath. Everyone except Coach Smith, who shared after the Falcons' win over the Lions that he was thinking about what move to make next as Ryan went down in the third quarter with an ankle injury. In a move that put Ryan among the toughest quarterbacks in the league, he returned to the game on the next series to complete a third-down 49-yard completion to get Atlanta within scoring position in a critical point against the Lions. After the game, Smith talked about his respect for his quarterback's determination to get back into the game: "What goes through my mind? We gotta get Chris Redman ready and again, it just shows you the resolve and the resiliency of this guy. He got whacked pretty good; we had to take him into the locker room and really get a good examination. When I saw him coming out of the tunnel, I was trying like crazy to see if we could get him back out there for that third down. Can you go? And Matt said, 'Hey, I need to just see if I can put some pressure on it.' He just kind of took a shot and said, 'Hey, I'm ready to go.' He goes out there, and completes, his first play back, he completes a third-down conversion."
2) Tony Gonzalez on Julio Jones' catch in Indianapolis:
The Julio Jones catch against the Colts is undoubtedly the one play every single Falcons fan has seen multiple times from the 2011 season. The catch made our best of plays on the season. Jones' first touchdown was one to remember. The rookie caught a deep pass from Ryan between three defenders as he fell to the surface of the endzone and it took a challenge from coach Smith to ensure the incomplete pass call of the referees was overturned. That play headlined a banner day by Jones and made Falcons fans and players begin to speak quite highly of their prized first-round pick. Future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez shared his praise after the win: "He's just scratching the surface on the type of player he can be. That great catch that he made down there, you can just throw the ball up in the air and he'll go make a play. If you throw it to him short, the little slant that was, you're not going to catch him from behind. I've said it from the beginning, he is the most talented rookie I've ever seen. The future is so bright for him. I think he can be one of the best receivers if not the best receiver in the league once he puts it all together. It's going to take him some time to get there, but he can do it once he puts it all together."
1) Mike Peterson on Mike Smith's halftime message against Carolina:
After a lackluster first-half performance against the Panthers late in the season, head coach Mike Smith closed the doors to his team's locker room at halftime and spoke to his team. The team that came out in the second half scored 24 unanswered points, forced two turnovers and shut out Carolina's offense. The Falcons played Falcons football in the second half and it was that moment that helped turn around Atlanta's up-and-down season. Smith's complete lack of panic inspired the players to respond. Linebacker Mike Peterson spoke about Smith's message in the days following the come-back win: "We came in at halftime, Coach Smith said we're going to get back into this game one play at a time. It's not going to be a miracle. It's going to be one play at a time. Everybody bought into it and you see the outcome of it."
See more of our Best of 2011 series: