They've been on the scene now for five years, but the Atlanta Falcons still feel like a new story in the NFL and by an extension of that, a young team. In some ways, it's a testament to how consistently the Falcons have played over the last four seasons under head coach Mike Smith that an 11-1 start has begun to get the attention to Atlanta from around the league.
But the Falcons are far from a young team. In fact, there are only two teams in the NFL with an older average age. Players like Matt Ryan, Thomas DeCoud, Julio Jones and Sean Weatherspoon are still very young in their respective careers and making an impact on the team. But for every Ryan, DeCoud, Jones and 'Spoon, there's a Dunta Robinson, Tony Gonzalez, Todd McClure and Mike Peterson.
The Falcons are starting to see the results of an effort over the last few seasons to blend highly-seasoned veterans of the league with experienced players. The young guys have bought into the system, often enforced by the veterans, and are playing at a high level. The locker room chemistry, many players believe, is a big reason for the way the Falcons are playing. Across the position groups and sections of the locker room, there's a veteran watching over the goings on.
"The nucleus of this team has been together two, three years," Peterson said. "We hold each other to a very high standard. With these veteran guys, I don't have to go get on a young offensive lineman or a young tight end, I can just look at Tony, look at Mud (McClure) and they know. When one of the groups is not holding up their end of the deal, it falls on that leader of the group."
As the older guys continue to teach the merits of seizing each chance you get to be on a winning team headed for the playoffs, the younger nucleus of the team is beginning to build up enough experience winning to see how to get over the roadblocks that have ended seasons in the past.
"The start of this fourth quarter is very important for us," Smith said. "In terms of what happened a couple of years ago, we've experienced that, so we know what to expect. A lot of our guys know that as you get closer to the second season you're going to be scrutinized more, and I think they have a much better feel for what's going to take place through the next four weeks.
While a player like Peterson no longer starts, he plays a key role mentoring and leading the special teams squad. He's also stepped in when injuries have depleted the linebackers and he's made his share of plays. Look no further than the second-quarter tackle of Doug Martin to end a drive on third-and-1 from the Atlanta 1-yard line. It was a big play the defense needed and helped ignite a great defensive effort against the Bucs' running back.
The Falcons have been able to mix efforts like that and guidance from veterans with the big plays of younger core players to remain consistent throughout this season. Consistency like that and an ability to overcome roadblocks is the mark of a well-led team and a team that has a real shot in the playoffs.
"Not to make excuses for other teams, but you see a lot of teams that are having problems and you look at them and ask 'Who's the leader of that team,'" Peterson said. "Every team has to have a bona-fide leader, a thumper, that guy. Teams that don't have that, you see that up and down and they play shaky. The teams that have won it before, you go back and do your homework, they have that guy."