ATLANTA — Mike Smith has done a lot of things right since he took over as coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
Three straight winning seasons. Two trips to the playoffs. A division championship.
Smith insists that nothing has changed, even after a debated decision that went horribly wrong.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Smith said. “My confidence is never going to waver. The one thing I want to be is consistent every day that I wake up. That’s important not only as a coach, but as a person. I want to be a consistent person.”
The Falcons (5-4) head into today’s vital game against the Tennessee Titans (5-4) insisting they’ve moved on from last week’s jarring loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Atlanta overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime, and then Smith made perhaps the biggest gamble of his career when the Falcons faced fourth down and about a foot to go, just short of their own 30-yard line.
Instead of punting the ball away, Smith sent his offense back on the field to go for it. Michael Turner was swarmed by Saints defenders as soon as he got the ball, actually losing a couple of feet. New Orleans took over, already in field-goal range, and knocked through the winning kick four plays later for a 26-23 victory.
Smith took full responsibility for the call.
Now, he’s ready to move on.
“This is no different than any other week, I can assure you of that,” Smith said. “You put that one behind you, you learn from it and you go on to the next one. That’s what we’ve done since we’ve gotten here. I don’t think it will change. That’s the way our guys know we operate. They’ve done an outstanding job up to this point. I don’t anticipate it being any different this week.”
Certainly, the Falcons can’t afford to fret about a decision — and a game — they can’t get back. Tennessee, with a rookie coach and not a whole lot of big names, is poised to make a run at the playoffs in the suddenly depleted AFC South.
Indianapolis has fallen apart without Peyton Manning, and the Houston Texans could be without their quarterback, Matt Schaub, for the rest of the season because of a foot injury.
Suddenly, the Titans look as though they might be the team to beat.
“Well, I don’t know,” first-year coach Mike Munchak said. “That’s not something that helps us beat Atlanta this weekend and it won’t help us beat Tampa next weekend and on and on and on. It doesn’t really affect us at all unless (the Texans) lose two or three games over the next three or four weeks, then maybe all of a sudden it means something. For now it just means that a good football player got hurt and is not playing. We will see what it means when the season ends.”
Tennessee running back Chris Johnson is mired in the worst year of his career, but he’s coming off a season-best 130 yards in a dominating win over Carolina. If that’s a sign of things to come, the Titans will feel a whole lot better about their chances. As it stands, they still have the fewest rushing yards of any team in the NFL, even factoring in Johnson’s second 100-yard game of the season.
“I’m just basically hoping to bring momentum to the next week and the whole season,” Johnson said. “It felt good to finally get a good game and keep pushing forward.”
Unlike their division rivals, the Titans are in fairly good shape physically and eager to string together a few wins. The 30-3 rout of Carolina was only their second victory in the last five games.
“We can’t keep that up,” Johnson said. “We know we can’t make the playoffs playing like that. It’s a situation now where we know we have to get hot at some point and get a winning streak going on in order to make the playoffs.”
It’s the same sentiment in Atlanta.
The Falcons won the NFC South a year ago and came into the season picked as one of the leading Super Bowl contenders. After a sluggish start, they put together three wins in a row, giving them a shot at taking over first place when they faced the Saints. Instead, they were knocked back — and the way they lost only added to the sting.
“It’s getting down to crunch time,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “It’s getting to that point where you can’t afford to keep losing. We’ve got to put a couple together and make our run. We’ve got to hit our peak here pretty soon.”
The Falcons have shown their potential in spurts, such as their comeback against New Orleans. But an offense that was supposed to be high-powered has struggled to finish with touchdowns in the red zone, and receiver Roddy White is having an especially disappointing season, much like Johnson on the Titans side.
White has dropped nine passes, more than any other receiver in the NFL, and been called for three personal fouls — a sure sign of his frustration.
“We had higher expectations,” White said. “But we are where we are right now. We’ve got to improve vastly these last seven games. We’ve got to get out there and get after people, get our run game going, pass the ball more efficiently, stop being so inconsistent throughout the game. Sometimes we look good, sometimes we look bad. We’ve just got to be more consistent.”
No matter what, the Falcons insist they haven’t lost confidence in Smith.
Even after his fourth-down gamble went terribly wrong.
“That was tough. That was real tough,” Gonzalez said. “I know coach Smitty cares so much and you knew he was going to take that responsibility. At the same time, we have to be accountable as players. When a play is called, we’ve got to execute it and make sure it works. But we all respect the call. I stand by it. It was the right call to go for it. Coach Smitty is one of the best I’ve ever been around. We love playing for him. We stand by whatever he wants to do. We trust him.”