Since head coach Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta three years ago, the Falcons have adopted a tough, never-say-die attitude that has carried them to a high level of success. Sunday's overtime win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints was case in point of how toughness and the ability to keep fighting have become hallmarks of this Atlanta team.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons were facing a pivotal situation Sunday. It is one they have seen before.
The New Orleans Saints had just scored a touchdown to go ahead 14-7 and the unfriendly Superdome crowd was on its feet, enjoying what must have felt to them like a big step toward a sure victory.
On the road, against the defending Super Bowl champions, it perhaps would have been easy to give up and let momentum run its course for the rest of the game.
But that's not the style of this team. That's not the 2010 Atlanta Falcons.
Knowing that they needed to respond, the Falcons rallied after an opportune Thomas DeCoud interception for a dramatic and efficient 19-play, 72-yard, 10-minute, 39-second drive to tie the game up and shift momentum back to the Atlanta sideline before heading in for halftime.
It was a microcosm of what this Falcons team is and has been about since head coach Mike Smith arrived three years ago.
"I think that's kind of the character of this locker room, and I think we've seen that, really, in the past three years," quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. "I think we've been in a number of different situations and never really felt like we were out of any games, so it's good when you've got makeup like that amongst the players, amongst the coaching staff, and it gives yourself a chance late in games."
Even in what is currently such a short season to judge by, the Falcons have gotten quite a few lessons and taken very good notes. Atlanta has been through two overtime battles in its first three games, and every time they have had a chance to respond after going down, the Falcons have.
Against Pittsburgh, the Falcons fought back after being down by three points several times when offense was at a premium in a defensive battle. Against Arizona, the Cardinals got to within one score on an 80-yard touchdown run by Tim Hightower before the Falcons' offense torched the field the rest of the game. Against New Orleans, the Falcons survived the ebbs and flows of a game that had plenty of both.
Despite the loss of momentum in each case, the Falcons were able to get it back by simply remaining tough and believing in their ability to fight back.
"I've been on teams where every time we go down, we go in the tank and everyone assumes that we're not going to win," Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "But this team is different. From this year to last year to, shoot, our first year (with the current coaching staff), no matter if we're up or down, we always have a strong belief that we can win the game if we just keep on pushing forward. We don't even look at the scoreboard sometimes. We just keep on fighting as hard as we can."
Toughness, the willingness to fight and the ability to respond have been hallmarks of the Falcons this season. Save for a couple of big plays here and there, the Falcons' defense has been stout, especially when defending against the run.
The Falcons are currently 12th in the league and sixth in the NFC in rushing yards allowed. Rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is 28th in the league in total tackles with 24.
It's those types of things that have other teams starting to take notice of just how tough the Falcons are.
"No question, we're getting ready for a physical battle," San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith said during Wednesday's conference call with the Atlanta media. "I really feel like they're both physical teams, but I definitely feel like Atlanta is a physical team. We're getting ready for a four-quarter war. No question."
If that's the case, it's safe to assume the Falcons will be ready for it, what with two of three games already needing an extra period to decide a winner.
To Ryan, that experience, despite the loss to Pittsburgh, is what has helped the Falcons grow into a team that has a never-say-die attitude. Being able to learn from situations like the one the Falcons faced when Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall ran 50 yards for a game-winning touchdown in Week 1 proves invaluable as the Falcons continue to become the tough team they want to be.
"Being in situations where you come back and you do win in those situations, but also situations where you don't have success, you learn a lot of things from those, too," Ryan said. "Year in and year out, we continue to get more experienced. You understand that, at the end of a game, things can shake out a number of different ways and you have to prepare yourself for that."
Now, it's just a matter of keeping that toughness going through the rest of the season.
"We're a pretty physical football team, and that's what we want to be," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "That's what they teach around here. It just carries over week in and week out. You want to make sure that you keep that up, because that's our No. 1 identity. At least, that's how we like to go out there and play week in and week out."