In fact, the latest division championship hardly stirred excitement when coach Mike Smith congratulated the players on Tuesday.
“We’ve won the division before, so it’s not that big of a deal, you know what I mean?” receiver Roddy White said. “When coach said, ‘Congratulations,’ nobody was woo-wooing or nothing like that, which is good.
“We’ve got our eye on the big prize.”
First among those goals is to earn the top playoff seed and secure home-field advantage through the conference title game.
The Falcons are mindful, however, that their 2½-game lead in the NFC is no guarantee, particularly after earning the No. 1 seed two years ago and collapsing in a second-round blowout loss to Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon believes the entire team knows that there’s too much at stake to feel complacent.
“You have to be happy with where you’re at right now, but ultimately it’s all about finishing it,” Weatherspoon said. “We set our goals high. That’s just part of the step, so now it’s on to the next part.”
Smith did his part to keep players energized by giving the team four days off following last Thursday’s home win over New Orleans. The mini-bye week, as Weatherspoon calls it, marked the second time this season that Smith rewarded his team for winning.
After an Oct. 14 home victory over Oakland that improved the Falcons to 6-0, Smith gave the players an entire week off. Center Todd McClure, now in his 14th season, credits the fifth-year coach with having a good feel for knowing when to motivate his players and when to back off.
“Smitty knows this locker room,” McClure said. “He’s down here a bunch. He knows how everybody’s feeling physically. He knows when we need rest. He knows when we need to turn it on and when we need to go harder and keep the pads on in practice. He’s got a great vibe of the locker room, and I think that’s what’s making him successful as a head coach.”
On Tuesday, Atlanta’s first workout on the field since the win over New Orleans, Smith and his staff sent the team through a session he calls “Falcons-on-Falcons.”
Smith took the same approach after the bye week, and Atlanta responded on Oct. 28 with a 30-17 victory at Philadelphia a few days later.
The goal is to remind players of the rudimentary importance of technique and timing. Coaches keep the focus on one-on-one matchups, scheme assignments and third-down efficiency as offensive starters practice against defensive starters.
“You’re getting the best in-season work, except on game day, because you’re going against one another and not working off cards,” Smith said. “You’re actually getting a crisper play run when you’re working against yourself. I think it gets the guys focused, and it gives them an opportunity to come out and compete.”
Third downs were a significant problem against New Orleans. The Falcons’ offense, which ranks second in third-down efficiency, went just 1-for-11. Defensively, Atlanta dropped to 29th against the run and 15th on third down, but still stayed in the top five in scoring.
“In this league, you have to understand those guys on the other side are getting paid just like we do,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “So they’re going to make some plays, but it’s about how you strong you stand ultimately, and I think we do a good job.”
Extra rest could help over the next four games as cornerback Asante Samuel (shoulder) and nose tackle Peria Jerry (quadriceps) try to rehab their way back.
Though Smith said that Jerry might practice on Wednesday as the Falcons (11-1) install their game plan for Sunday’s visit to Carolina (3-9), he added that it was too early to predict Samuel’s status.
The Falcons were encouraged, however, that Christopher Owens played one his better games after Samuel lasted just three snaps against the Saints.
Running back Michael Turner believes having backups like Owens compete at a high level fuels confidence of the entire team and keeps Atlanta on track to keep winning.
“The last couple of years it’s come down pretty tight at the end (of the regular season), but to get that part out of the way — that first step — is pretty good,” Turner said. “Now, with so many different contributing to the team’s overall success, we can finish out the regular season strong.”