Falcons not chic, but get job done
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Ovie Mughelli sat on the stool in front of his locker at Atlanta's practice facility, about 45 minutes from downtown, and shook his head.
"I can't even turn on the TV without somebody saying that we're going to be the underdog," the Atlanta Falcons fullback said. "What, 13-3 underdogs every single week? I think most people think we're going to be underdogs at home, again, this Saturday."
But maybe it fits. Mughelli talked of being an underdog his whole life. Several of the Falcons' stars didn't play at Bowl Championship Series schools; they include Roddy White (Alabama-Birmingham), Michael Turner (Northern Illinois), Kroy Biermann (Montana), and Brent Grimes (Shippensburg).
Mike Smith, the approachable and personable but intense head coach, played college football at East Tennessee State, which dropped the sport in 2003.
The top seed in the NFC is perhaps the low seed at times when it comes to attention or, certainly with the Falcons' fan base, a perceived lack of attention. One recent message-board offering called the Falcons the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL.
"I love it," said Mughelli, who played at Wake Forest. "I love being the underdog. I love not getting all the credit and force them to respect you when you get on the field by your play."
But even owner Arthur Blank understands why there are skeptics.
"It's only the fourth time in our history we've won our division," he said, "only the second time in our history we've been the No. 1 seed."
And that history started with a 3-11 debut season in 1966 and includes only 10 trips to the postseason and, finally, consecutive winning seasons, the current three-in-a-row run.
Fan perception aside, the Falcons are among the most-respected teams in the NFL. Otherwise, they wouldn't have had a league-high seven selections to the Pro Bowl.
Of course, those seven will be busy in chilly Atlanta as Green Bay comes to town in the NFC divisional playoff game Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
As it is, the Falcons are a 21/2-point favorite, while two of the three other home teams remaining - Chicago and New England - are favored by much more. Pittsburgh is a three-point favorite over Baltimore.
Another sign that plenty of people know about the Falcons was the Sporting News' naming Smith its head coach of the year this week - for the second time in three years - and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey the top coordinator in the league.
But the Falcons haven't won big or pretty this season, and the rematch with the Packers is certainly one they could lose, even at home, where they are 20-4 over the last four seasons and 20-2 when quarterback Matt Ryan starts in the Georgia Dome.
One of those wins came on Nov. 28.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers drove the Packers 90 yards on 16 plays, eating up 5 minutes, 3 seconds, for the tying score with 56 seconds remaining.
Rodgers torched Atlanta's defense, which usually rushed only three and spent most of the afternoon in pass coverage, for 344 yards on 26-of-35 passing. He scrambled well and was Green Bay's leading rusher with 51 yards on 12 tries, getting sacked only once.
Thanks to a long kickoff return and a penalty, the Falcons got the winning field goal with nine seconds left for a 20-17 victory.
So there's a school of thought that the NFC's sixth seed is equal to the top seed.
"We know what our plan of attack is," Smith said. "Our guys have a very good understanding of it. We really don't concern ourselves with outside perceptions."
Atlanta went 13-3 but didn't dominate many opponents. Only three of the Falcons' wins over non-playoff teams were by 20 or more points. And there was but one more win by 17 points, those four wins coming against teams that went 16-48 (including 2-14 Carolina twice). And the Falcons average only 8.7 more yards per game than opponents despite having run 140 more plays.
But Ryan, a Penn Charter grad, is known throughout the league as "Matty Ice." Tight end Tony Gonzalez is a likely future Hall of Famer, White led the NFL with 115 catches and was second with 1,389 yards, and John Abraham was fifth with 13 sacks. Michael Turner, Mike Peterson, Dunta Robinson, and Biermann are among the other Falcons with substantial reputations.
The Falcons are fairly young at linebacker and in the secondary and have a lunch-bucket offensive line.
Atlanta isn't a team of drama, or the NFL version of drama queens. Smith offers no bombast as New York Jets coach Rex Ryan does, and Atlanta doesn't have any end-zone choreography as it did in 1998 when the Dirty Birds rolled to the Super Bowl.
Even Blank is less prominent publicly than he was in the early stages of his ownership and throughout the Michael Vick controversy. He still appears on the sideline at the end of games - and he got soaked after the win over Carolina that clinched the top seed - but has pulled back and let Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and president Rich McKay run the team.
Atlanta is first in the league in fewest penalties (48) and plays from scrimmage (1,097), as well as third in third-down conversion offense and turnover margin.
"We don't make a lot of mistakes," Blank said. "That's a big part of winning in the NFL. We're the least-penalized team in the NFL, which is huge."