The Atlanta Falcons last made the playoffs following the 2012 season, finishing 13-3 and locking up the top seed in the NFC and a first round bye. Since then, the team has added a number of young players who are currently preparing for their first postseason appearance with the Falcons.
You might think it’s a challenge for Atlanta’s head coach, Dan Quinn, who is not only facing his first postseason in this role, but also navigating the strains of helping inexperienced players maintain the necessary focus for the postseason.
The stakes are higher, but preparation is the same
Every player in the Falcons’ locker room knows what’s at stake on Saturday. It’s a win or go home situation. The mood in the locker room, though, hasn’t changed a bit. It was the same on Thursday as it was in Week 1 of the regular season.
As they finalized preparations for their first postseason appearance in Atlanta, several young Falcons players said that’s been a key to the team’s success this year. They treat each week the same, and every game is a championship game for Quinn’s Falcons.
“Q does a really good job of allowing us to focus on the process and not look too far into the future and not see anything bigger than anything else, so each week is championship week for us,” rookie safety Keanu Neal said. “So this week is the same as any other week.”
Tight end Joshua Perkins could only identify one difference between this week and every other week of the season.
“It’s been the same, honestly. Just a lot more focus, more attention to detail,” Perkins said. “Just try to do things we’ve been doing the whole year.”
Taylor Gabriel noted one key thing the Falcons aren’t changing this week.
“The intensity is still the same,” Gabriel said. “We’re not changing anything. So it feels like a regular week to me.”
A handful of players who joined the team following its NFC Championship appearance after the 2012 season have the unique position of a veteran perspective coupled with the novelty of a postseason appearance. Tight end Levine Toilolo is one of those players.
Toilolo said Quinn’s keeping everyone’s focus where it needs to be.
“I think he’s kind of had everyone’s focus at a certain level as far as championship week prep and stuff like that, so I think going into this week, he’s done a good job of keeping it all the same,” Toilolo said.
Paul Worrilow is another veteran who is savoring his first playoff experience. He said that it’s the veterans’ job to help keep young players’ focus where it needs to be.
“As an older guy, we know what we’re supposed to be doing on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, even game day,” Worrilow said. “So as an older guy, if you see a young guy kind of drifting off from that, maybe talking about playoffs or getting ahead of himself, you know exactly where to pull them back into it.”
With the game scheduled for Saturday, there’s an additional wrinkle involved in keeping the players’ routine the same. The Falcons went to great lengths to preserve their routine and process.
As I talked to players on Thursday — which was a Friday for the Falcons in terms of their game preparation schedule — guys faced off on the ping pong tables while “Friday” by Sir Charles Jones played on repeat in the background.
This has been the scene in the locker room on every single Friday this season. The team’s process was preserved this week down to the finest detail.
The bye week was a tremendous advantage
Don’t underestimate the difference last week’s bye can make for the Falcons heading into this game.
For rookies, especially, they haven’t had a break since the beginning of their final college seasons. This bye week was a chance to rest up, mentally and physically.
Rookie cornerback Brian Poole took full advantage of the bye.
“I got to sleep a lot, so you know that’s always a great thing,” Poole said.
Perkins noted that the bye was important for players to be fresh physically.
“I think it just allowed a lot of people to get their body right, you know? People have been doing this for years, and just to be able to get that week off after 18, 20 games, it’s just been good for the team,” Perkins said. “Everybody feels a lot more fresh, and it’s just good for us as a team.”
In addition to resting up, players had the opportunity to self-scout and focus on improving fundamentals. That’s not something teams typically have time for during the season, so it was a good opportunity for the Falcons to get a little bit better heading into a very important game.
“I got a little rest, you know? I got a good bit of recovery in, and it was a good chance to sit back and focus on what I had to improve on before we hit this stretch, and it was great,” rookie linebacker Deion Jones said.
Tight end D.J. Tialavea said the team spent the bye week focused on improving at several levels.
“It’s awesome for us to kind of self scout ourselves and figure out what we’ve got to work on individually, as a position group, and as a whole team, so it was a good week for us,” Tialavea said.
Worrilow said that having played Seattle previously this season is also an advantage.
“We know these guys. We played them earlier,” Worrilow said. “How well can we execute our game plan, our effort, all our technique? And that week gives you that opportunity to look back and see where you need to improve on things, and we got a lot of good work that week.”
If you’ll think back to Week 6, when the Falcons faced the Seahawks in the regular season, Seattle was coming off of a bye. The game was at home, and the Falcons had traveled to Washington immediately after the big Week 5 win over the Broncos in Denver.
Now, the tables are turned. The Falcons are rested, fresh, and ready to face Seattle at home.
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Dan Quinn emphasized on Friday that he’s practicing what he preaches as far as staying in the routine and staying focused on preparing the same way this week.
“I had to be true to that, too, to make sure that, if I’m telling that to the guys, then they would certainly know if I was performing different or asking them to do something different,” Quinn said. “So I wanted to have a real consciousness about it, for them to know that they can count on me to make good decisions for our team every time.”
One thing that is a little different this time around compared to that Week 6 matchup between the Falcons and Seahawks is that this team has developed throughout the year.
Matt Ryan looked good in those early weeks, but by the time the regular season ended, he’d turned in a first-team All-Pro caliber performance. Toilolo said it’s been fun to be a part of that offensive attack.
“I think a lot of guys will say, just to celebrate with your brothers, whether it’s on a big play, on a touchdown,” Toilolo said. “I saw a stat that Matt’s thrown touchdowns to 13 different players, so to be able to celebrate in the end zone with all those different guys is always fun.”
The defense, while young and still prone to lapses, has also improved over the course of the season.
Neal said the improvements on defense will be fundamentally important for the Falcons on Saturday.
“I think after that (regular season) bye week, we skyrocketed, and we’re a lot better defense now,” Neal said. “We’re a lot closer, it seems like, like our chemistry’s a lot better, and we’re playing more like a united defense, and you can see that. And that itself allows us to play better against that Seattle offense.”
Worrilow said it all comes down to what the Falcons bring to the field on Saturday.
“We know our game plan, how well can we go execute it,” Worrilow said. “Which is cool about this team — the focus is always on us and what we can control, so if we go out there and play like we know we should and like we’re capable of, we show how hard we practiced during the week, then we can come out on top.”
The Falcons have prepared for this game with the same process that got them to 11 regular season wins and a first-round playoff bye, and they’re ready for the Seahawks.