On a day when temperatures touched the upper 60s in this suburban Atlanta outpost, Falcons players bounced around with a little extra pep in their step.
It had less to do with Wednesday’s spring-like weather than the fact that the Falcons sit one victory away from the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.
This is a team that has had cabin fever for 51 years.
But these players aren’t concerned about the Falcons’ Lombardi Trophy-less history – not if the scene in the locker room before Wednesday’s practice was any indication.
Former Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Philip Wheeler played ping-pong on one end of the room, and guard Andy Levitre beamed over the recent birth of his child at the opposite end.
Meanwhile in the middle of the locker room, players chastised interlopers who unknowingly tread on the team’s logo on the carpeted floor (Protect This House?).
In other words, the Falcons had the same loose vibe the Carolina Panthers had 12 months ago. The only thing missing was Mike Tolbert’s boom box.
The Panthers hurdle
Before the Falcons (12-5) took care of Seattle in the divisional round to set up the matchup with Green Bay (11-6) in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, they first had to knock the Panthers from their perch atop the NFC South.
“To be able to be put in this position, to be able to get that first-round bye and get a (week) off, you’ve got to take out the top,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “We knew the Panthers were dominant in this (division) and they’ve been dominant in this division for so many (years). We didn’t really focus on them. But we knew when we went against them, we had to come to play.”
The Falcons spoiled the Panthers’ perfect season in 2015 with a 20-13 victory at the Georgia Dome in Week 16. That game featured a long touchdown catch by wide receiver Julio Jones and a strip-sack by Beasley against Cam Newton in the final minute.
Atlanta’s Week 4 victory against Carolina this season included another long touchdown catch by Jones – and a whole bunch of other receptions by the Pro Bowler from Alabama.
During a season in which the Falcons set offensive records as quickly as Atlanta tears down stadiums, their most explosive game came at the expense of the Panthers.
The Falcons’ 48 points, 571 yards and 481 net passing yards were all season highs.
Besides getting cornerback Bené Benwikere cut in Carolina, Atlanta’s Week 4 onslaught served notice to the rest of the league that Matt Ryan was back after the worst season of his career and the Falcons’ offense was a totally different animal in the second year of Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
The Falcons had racked up 45 points and 442 yards the previous week in New Orleans, then topped both numbers in the Oct. 2 game against Carolina.
Watching Ryan and Jones become the first duo in league history to reach 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards in a game got even the more understated Falcons players to dream big.
“I know Carolina didn’t do as well as they wanted to. But I don’t think that takes away from how good how they were still as a team. At least from their defense, they’re tough to play against,” Levitre said. “Being able to move the ball like that against a good defense builds some confidence in your offense.”
The Panthers’ defense fared better in the Christmas Eve rematch in Charlotte, but only slightly. The Falcons’ 33-16 victory – coupled with Tampa Bay’s loss to the Saints – clinched the division for Atlanta, which ended Carolina’s three-year run.
A boost from 2015 upset
Allen said beating the undefeated Panthers near the end of the 2015 provided a boost heading into the offseason.
“Once you give a team confidence, that team is a hard team to take care of,” Allen said. “We’ve been building confidence and it started late last year.”
Confidence was in short supply this season for the Panthers, who finished 6-10 while going from first to worst in the NFC South.
While Carolina lost defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to a head-coaching job, the Falcons likely will have Shanahan’s services for two more weeks at the most before he’s expected to take over in San Francisco.
When Shanahan heads west, Falcons coach Dan Quinn undoubtedly will look for a successor who will stick with Shanahan’s offense, a blend of timing-based passes and outside zone runs.
But running the system and calling the plays to produce 540 points (tied with the Greatest-Show-on-Turf Rams for seventh-most in league history) are two different things.
The Panthers have their own offensive issues to address this offseason, but losing Shanahan would be a big blow for Atlanta.
But that was an issue for another day for these Falcons, who were basking in Wednesday’s sun and planning a proper sendoff for the grand, old Dome.
“We’ve got hopefully two more games this year and hopefully continue to do what we’ve been doing offensively and continue to put up points,” said Patrick DiMarco, the former South Carolina fullback. “But let next year be next year. This year’s what we’ve got in store.”