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Monday Game Face


* contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a day-after look at the Falcons' 34-18 win over the Seahawks on Sunday. The win improved Atlanta to 12-2 and clinched a playoff spot for the Falcons, setting up a Week 16 showdown with the New Orleans Saints that could put the Falcons at home throughout the playoffs. *

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —As the 2010 season has progressed, there's been an overwhelming sense from Atlanta head coach Mike Smith that this is exactly the kind of team he envisioned coaching one day when he got his head coaching shot.

Smith has a demeanor that is calm and calculated, a business man's approach to a league that is often flamboyant, as much entertainer as it is athlete.

The win Sunday concluded a stretch of games that saw the Falcons play four of their past five games on the road, including three straight with the West Coast finale in Seattle. Smith described his team as business-like through the tough stretch, winning all four of those road games.

"That's the thing that I really like about our team," Smith said after Sunday's win. "They understand where we're at and what we need to do."

Atlanta's 6-2 road record this season is the best road production they've had under Smith. With their third straight road win on Sunday, they became the fifth team since 2000 to win three consecutive road games.

The word "focused" has come up often throughout the season and their recent road run is a perfect example of the weekly focus the Falcons have had. Smith said many of the veterans on the team helped guide the younger players through the process, mentoring them on the ins and outs of taking their show on the road.

"I think we've got great guys in the locker room and on the coaching staff," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Everybody's remained focused on the task at hand and not looked ahead. That's the reason we're at where we're at this point in the season."

Behind Enemy Lines:The Atlanta Falcons don't take any pride in embarrassing opponents or causing anyone to lose a job; they're simply out to win games, but their performance in the win over the Seahawks may have signaled changes to come for the Seattle organization.

On the heels of a four interception day in Week 14, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck — the quarterback that led the team to Super Bowl XL in 2005 — turned in a two-interception performance against the Falcons, before being benched just before the end of the third quarter.

In came backup Charlie Whitehurst and it led *Seattle Times *columnist Jerry Brewer to write: "If it's the end of an era, it's also the beginning of a headache."

The stalwart QB for years in Seattle, Hasselbeck's time may be coming to a close and the recent play of the former Pro Bowler leaves Seattle trying to figure out what to do next at the most important position in football.

From the FanCast:Although running back Michael Turner didn't have the kind of day statistically that he's had in recent weeks, his effort kept the Falcons consistent on the ground and gave them the chances they wanted through the air.

The Falcons ran the ball 37 times and passed 36, the balance they've maintained throughout this successful season.

Turner produced 82 yards on 25 attempts and many of them were hard-fought, straight ahead runs designed to wear out Seattle's defense. It worked, allowing the Falcons to get more aggressive as the game continued.

The running back's approach on Sunday led one fan to pose a question in Sunday's FanCast, a thought many opposing teams surely have had as they've been faced with limiting and tackling the Pro Bowl running back.

"Does Mike Turner remind anyone else of an ox?" the fan asked.

Statistically Speaking:With Ryan's ascension this week into the top-10 vote-getters in Pro Bowl voting, the third-year quarterback is starting to get some recognition for being one of the better QBs in the game.

He's got a ways to go before he is considered in the category of the game's elite like Indianapolis' Peyton Manning or New England's Tom Brady, but the man they call Matty Ice is gaining traction for his winning ways.

Ryan's making some history this season as he's helped lead the Falcons to a 12-2 start. He's now posted a 32-12 record in his career, trailing only Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino for the best record by a signal caller through the first three seasons of a career.

Pivotal Play:To say Jamaal Anderson has had an up-and-down career after being selected with the eighth pick overall in the 2007 draft by the Falcons may be an understatement. But this season has been a bit of a revelation for the defensive end.

The Falcons have put Anderson's size and quickness to good use, rotating him along the defensive line to provide versatility and give their defensive line added dimensions. Often on passing downs the 6-foot-6 Anderson moves inside to defensive tackle and on running plays he shifts outside to end, utilizing his superior run-stopping ability.

Although he wasn't drafted primarily to stop the run, it's a role Anderson has embraced and he understands some of the frustrations that have been associated with his production as a pass-rusher drafted high in the first round.

"I came in and I had a lot of expectations for me, unfortunately I haven't reached them," Anderson said Sunday. "I'm still young and I have a long ways to go and I'm just working every day. If my job is stopping the run, I'm going to do that. We're 12-2, and obviously it's been successful for the team. We're a top-10 defense stopping the run and we want to continue doing that. That's two years consecutively so far. I just want to do my part to help this team win."

He did his part in a big way on Sunday and it came as a pass rusher, helping swing the momentum that was already gaining for the Falcons on their way to the win.

With a 17-10 lead and the Packers starting inside their 5-yard line on their first possession of the second half, Anderson strip sacked Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux recovered the fumble for a touchdown extending the lead.

His sack in the end zone started a string of three consecutive turnovers for Atlanta and was a huge part of Sunday's win.

Anderson believes his versatility on the line has added to the overall rotation of the defensive front four, making them one of the most consistent parts of Atlanta's defense. As it gets later into games, the quantity of talented players the Falcons can present to opposing team's offensive lines works to wear them down.

"Just the fact that we have many people we're able to rotate on the defensive line, it jeeps us fresh," he said. "It keeps a lot of guys ready for the fourth quarter. We've had Abe (John Abraham) have a phenomenal year and I think due to it is him being fresh in the fourth quarter."

That's A Wrap: With two games remaining, both at home, the Falcons have clinched a playoff berth and turn their sights on wrapping up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

With a win in one of the final two games of the season Atlanta will secure the NFC's No. 1 seed and the right to play at home.

Next week's opponent is just "one of sixteen" as Ryan said on Sunday, but it's against the New Orleans Saints, a bitter NFC South rival and a team chasing the Falcons for a spot in the playoffs. Atlanta's win over the Saints on the road earlier this season gives next week's game an added complexity.

It's also on Monday night, a national television game.

"We've been looking forward to this one, obviously taking care of business along the way," guard Harvey Dahl said. "We're excited for Monday night at the dome and it's going to be rocking."

Though they want more than just a spot in the playoffs, the Falcons were happy to have clinched a berth with Sunday's win.

"I'm very happy for our team, our fans, Mr. (Arthur) Blank and Thomas Dimitroff), our whole entire organization, that we've clinched a playoff berth," Smith said. "There's still a lot of football to be played. There's two games left. There's still a lot out there that is going to affect a number of teams throughout the league. That's what our focus has to be. We can not concern ourselves with where we are today, it's where we want to be tomorrow and the day after."

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