*AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a day-after look at the Falcons' 31-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Sunday's win gave the Falcons the NFC South crown, the top seed in the playoffs and home-field advantage. The Falcons improved to 13-3 and capped a memorable season that saw new records and milestones be written in the franchise history books. *
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —Now things really begin.
Michael Turner stood at his locker following Sunday's win and shook his head as he sometimes does when he explains things to the media that he believes are fundamental to the Falcons.
"Yeah, we've got bigger goals right now," the running back said. "No one says we just want to be division champs. That's not number one right now. We just know this is an important step to take to win a championship. Hopefully we'll be there."
The Falcons are careful not to put their goals into public words, but everyone knows what teams play for. The mood in the locker room wasn't filled with champagne and cheers, instead of a team appreciative of what they've accomplished this team and thankful to have earned a week off in the playoffs with Sunday's win.
Being division champs is one thing, but making the most of the title is a completely different story.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez has seen it all before to this point: a hot and successful team, winning a division title and ready to make a march through the playoffs.
He's been on good teams before, teams that made the playoffs, but never in his 14 seasons has he won a playoff game. He's thankful for another chance in the tournament, but like his teammates, wants more than just a win.
"It's another step in the right direction, but at the same time, I've been in this situation before," Gonzalez said. "I'm going to enjoy it and celebrate it tonight. This week, we have the bye week but then we have to get out there because that's when it really counts. It's for all the marbles. We just have to stay focused and keep doing what we did out there today and just keep getting better. It's going to be fun."
Behind Enemy Lines:Panthers head coach John Fox isn't a coach that inspires a lot of animosity from opposing teams or fans. He's a lot like Atlanta head coach Mike Smith in his compassionate yet stern handling of everything relating to his team.
When the Panthers organization made it clear earlier this week that they wouldn't retain Fox for the 2011 season, some with the Falcons may have swallowed a little harder. They knew the Panthers would come to play, but now with the added passion of sending their head coach out in style, Carolina wouldn't roll over for the Falcons in Week 17.
When the dust cleared on the Falcons win, Smith met Fox at mid field to pay his final respects to him as an opposing head coach within the division.
"John really spoke more to me than I spoke to him," Smith said. "I spoke to him before the game and again, it's tough. John's been a very successful coach in this league. He's won a lot of football games, unfortunately this year he did not win as many as they needed to. John to me is one of the top coaches in the NFL. To be in one place for nine years speaks volumes of his whole entire body of work."
The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person wrote both teams expressed their respect for the outgoing Fox, who is believed to be headed for any number of coaching spots around the league next season.
From the FanCast:The image of the head coach receiving a dumped cooler of Gatorade on his head is an iconic one in sports.
It happened on Sunday for Smith, which should have been expected.
Given to him by two of the only men on the roster with the stature to do so, Turner and Roddy White, Blank was the unsuspecting victim of the celebration that place on the Falcons sidelines as they secured their first-round bye.
While it may have ruined a perfectly good suit, it's a price tag Mr. Blank surely won't mind paying for the right to host the playoffs in Atlanta this season.
Statistically Speaking:Atlanta's first-seed clinching win on Sunday is the first of its kind for the team since 1980. While the Falcons have been division champions four times in their history, they've only been the conference's top seed once.
2004 was the last season the Falcons were NFC South champions. Their 13-3 mark this season is the team's second highest win total in franchise history.
Pivotal Play:A player that has earned everything he's gotten this season, Eric Weems had another banner day on Sunday.
The wide receiver/return man/special teams ace recently earned the first Pro Bowl invitation of his career for his play in many facets of special teams this season. Yesterday he firmly entrenched himself in the history of the franchise.
His 55-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter came on the heels of Week 13's 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, making him the first player in Falcons history to return a kick and a punt for a touchdown in the same season.
The undrafted free agent receiver and former practice squad Falcon has been a spark plug for the Falcons all season and did it again on Sunday.
"Guys up front did a great, they got the blocks, they got me clean for the first ten yards and I knew once they got me clean for the first ten yards it was a touchdown all the way," Weems said. "All they had left was the kicker and I was not about to let him take me down."
There aren't many better stories on the Falcons this year than that of Weems, who Smith routinely says is one of the team's core special teams players, for all his various contributions. The Pro Bowl honors this season mean a lot to Weems, but like the team itself, he's got bigger goals.
"I'm very proud," he said. "I'm still trying to accomplish some goals left over. We're trying to make it to that big game."
That's A Wrap: A first-round bye. A week of rest. Home-field advantage.
These are all things earned on Sunday and the Falcons are clearly very excited about the extra rest they'll get.
"I think the biggest thing is to get a little bit of rest having just gone through the regular season," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It's a great chance for our guys to rest their bodies and get healthy heading into two weeks from now."
Smith said the team will work on Falcons things this week and will use some of the film study they've logged this week of some of their potential opponents to do so. Once they know who they will face on January 15, they'll begin preparing as they normally do.
The Falcons have worked each week under the 24-hour rule, the period of time allowed the players and coaches to enjoy a win or move on from a loss.
Center Todd McClure said on Sunday evening this time that may extend into a temporary 48-hour rule for this week because of the bye. They've earned it.
But they won't celebrate for long.