Unsung heroes of the Atlanta Falcons

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
11:00
AM ET
DETROIT -- When the Atlanta Falcons play the Detroit Lions on Saturday night, all they have to do to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs is win.

The Falcons have been doing plenty of winning. They’re 12-2 and we’ve heard lots about quarterback Matt Ryan and his star-studded receiving cast of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. And we’ve heard plenty about a defense that’s led by veteran defensive end John Abraham and emerging star Sean Weatherspoon.

But they’re not the only reasons the Falcons are doing well. Let’s take a look at five lesser-known reasons why the Falcons are sitting pretty.

Stephen Nicholas: Weatherspoon has been the star at linebacker, and he’s the heart and soul of the defense. But Nicholas is having by far the best season of his career. The Falcons always thought Nicholas had good skills but believed he didn’t always take full advantage of them. That’s all changed this season as Nicholas has been coming through with big plays and playing consistently well.

Sam Baker: The left tackle was a lightning rod for criticism through much of the first four years of his career. Fans were ready to run Baker out of town after he lost his starting job last season. But the Falcons believed that injuries had been holding Baker back. They told him to spend the offseason getting healthy, and they stood by him. That’s paid off in a big way, as Baker has done a solid job of protecting Ryan’s blind side, which has allowed the quarterback to have much more success throwing deep.

Kroy Biermann: This guy never will be a superstar, but you at least know what you’re getting with Biermann. He’s a high-energy guy. The Falcons were unhappy with high-priced Ray Edwards and cut him near the middle of the season. If Biermann wasn’t around, the Falcons would have had to stick with Edwards, and they probably wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in right now.

The secondary: Free safety Thomas DeCoud and strong safety William Moore were inconsistent the past few years, and there were questions about their ability to become solid starters. But the tandem has thrived under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. DeCoud and Moore have been coming up with interceptions -- six by DeCoud and four by Moore -- and they’ve been much more consistent as tacklers than they were in the past. The Falcons suffered a big loss at cornerback when Brent Grimes, who was carrying the franchise tag, went down with a season-ending injury. But Dunta Robinson has enjoyed his best season since joining the Falcons, veteran Asante Samuel has shown he still can play and nickelback Robert McClain has been the most pleasant surprise of the season.

The special teams: We’re not counting the return game, because that hasn’t been a factor. But punter/kickoff specialist Matt Bosher has emerged as a field-position force in his second season. Place-kicker Matt Bryant went through a brief slump near midseason, but he’s snapped out of it, and there aren’t many kickers around the league I’d rather have in a clutch situation.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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