The Falcons have been in a similar position as this before. What's different about this year for the Falcons as they enter the final week of the regular season is they've already clinched the NFC's top seed and by way of that, they've assured themselves home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The last time they clinched both was 2010, but they entered Week 17 needing a win. They won and they got what they wanted out of the playoffs, until they played and were kicked out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
The Falcons see Sunday as an important game in their recent efforts to establish strong momentum heading into the playoffs. Although there's a debate raging among the fan base about whether Atlanta should play its starters in a game that has no impact on what happens next, the Falcons see it as the next game, as they have all season, and want to keep the winning ways going as they enter the playoffs.
"We're not going to change the way we approach this game," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We're going to attack it like it's Week 3. We're all expecting to play and we're all expecting to play well. We have to put our best foot forward before the postseason."
Earlier this season, the Falcons suffered their second loss of the season on the road to the Carolina Panthers. This came on the heels of an impressive performance putting away the New Orleans Saints. After a lackluster effort, the Falcons collectively promised themselves they wouldn't come out and put another game like that out for others to see. Everything from energy to execution was lacking against Carolina and since then the Falcons have put together two of their most dominant games of the season.
Head coach Mike Smith says this week he doesn't believe he's seeing a preparation from his team that gives him the impression a Carolina-like game is coming on Sunday.
"I think the guys have done a good job through their first two days of practice," Smith said on Thursday. "We know that we played these guys really tough; it was a 1-point game down in Tampa. We know they're a good football team."
The players have been asked dozens of times about what's different about this year's version of Mike Smith's Falcons from those of the past. They appear better on the surface, but there are still plenty of doubters out there that point to the Falcons' playoff record when the discussion begins about Atlanta being among the league's best teams.
While there are many stats that support the theory that the Falcons are among the best, a look beyond the stats says they're a bit different from Falcons teams of the past. There's a confidence level, perhaps earned from many of the close games they've played this season, which helps them approach each situation in a game with the belief that they're going to pull it out. There's an understanding that there's always a way.
Despite what anyone says about the Falcons, they're 13-2 entering the final week of the season and the players who have been around since Smith took over as head coach in 2008 say they feel something about this year's team that is unlike those in the past. This belief begins with the longest-tenured Falcon, center Todd McClure, who's been in Atlanta since 1999.
"It does feel different," McClure said about this year's Falcons. "The whole attitude, the chemistry of this team, it feels totally different from just a few years ago. There's something about this team. We know we've got to finish out this week, but we have big goals after this week."