*The Falcons don't take any opponent lightly, not even one that appears to pit the team with the best record in the NFC against the one with the worst. The Falcons and the Panthers have a history of tough games and Atlanta knows Sunday's game could be another down-to-the-wire finish. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Tony Gonzalez has seen this before.
During his time in Kansas City, the Falcons tight end was on teams that were so far on the wrong side of a winning record with four games remaining in the season that there was no hope for the playoffs.
Now at 10-2 with the Falcons, he sees an opponent in Week 14's Carolina Panthers that he identifies with. The future Hall of Famer said Wednesday losing teams he's been a part of in the past often felt like they were still a good team, the outcomes just didn't go the way they planned.
He also felt this Atlanta team would not have a difficult time preparing mentally to play a team most would expect them to defeat.
"It'd better not be, as far as I'm concerned or as far as this team is concerned," Gonzalez said. "Coach (Mike) Smith is doing a good job making sure we stay focused and don't underestimate anybody. These guys were all All-Americans in college"
Though mired in a six-game losing streak, the Panthers still have talent — especially on defense as Gonzalez pointed out — and they're more than capable of leaving Sunday with their second win of the season.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason, a two-time Pro Bowler, and free safety Charles Godfrey, a potential first-time Pro Bowler, headline a defense that on the statistics sheet has appeared to struggle this season.
Even though Carolina's got one lone win on the season, the Falcons see in them a team that has fought hard through their losses and hasn't given up on themselves, their coach or their season. A team like that, in a division rivalry game is always a tough matchup.
"It's the NFL," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "When you're going up against a team that's backed up against a wall, that's when you have to be even more focused. They're capable of anything. We're definitely not taking them lightly. This is the NFL. There's no freebies in this league."
Peterson said his role as a veteran in the locker room means he has to remind some of the younger players of that fact and to approach every week like it's against the defending champions.
One of those younger players that is listening is William Moore.
Thrust into a starting role this season and keeping it with his play, each week is a new experience for the second-year safety. He said he and his teammates find some motivation in not losing a game everyone says they should win.
"It's hard not to get caught into the hype from the success that we've built this season," Moore said. "We're a 10-2 team and we're facing a 1-11 team, it's really hard to not get caught into the hype. We could easily be in here saying if we play our ball we can win. We've got to prepare. If you look at the guys on their roster, they've got great players like we do. They've just come up short every week."
The Falcons know, as their leader Peterson has said, that they must stay poised and focused this week since it's another opportunity for a win, despite the opponent.
"Good teams win games they're supposed to win," running back Devonta Freeman said. "In order to do that, you've got to stay focused. We're going to go out there and do our job and hopefully come out on top. We want to make sure we do everything right on our part to give us the best chance to win the football game."
They know the Panthers will come out at home looking to spoil Atlanta's six-game winning streak. In a division known for it's tough and physical rivalry games, Atlanta-Carolina has always been one to watch.
Add to it all the fact that Atlanta hasn't won in Carolina under Smith's tenure as the coach and it equates to a dangerous game.
"Every time we've played the Carolina Panthers, it's come to down to a possession or two at the end," Smith said following Wednesday's practice.
But what makes things different this season for the Falcons is what they've got to play for, or rather lose.
"We have more than enough incentives," fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "The biggest one is the fact that we control our destiny right now. We want to stay in that place as long as possible. In order to stay in front of the Saints, the Packers and the Bears we've got to win this game."
As the Falcons have done all season, they're ready to put last week's game behind them. Though it was a win, they admitted they weren't very good in last Sunday's road win over the Buccaneers. What happens in previous weeks no longer matters and the only way to keep the ride going is to focus on what's ahead.
They've got a job to do and as far as they're concerned it starts all over on Sunday in Charlotte.
"It's what we get paid to do and we've got a good thing going, so let's not ruin it," Gonzalez said.