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|Mike Smith, left, and Matt Ryan have the Atlanta Falcons on a roll heading into the playoffs.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
ATLANTA -- In the postgame locker room Sunday at the Georgia Dome, a slogan was reborn.
What it lacks in originality is made up for by the possibility that it just might fit the Atlanta Falcons better than any team that ever has used the rallying cry.
"The message is, 'Why not us?'" coach Mike Smith said.
As they enter the playoffs, the Falcons just might be the most dangerous team in the NFC. They're the hottest, entering the playoffs on a three-game winning streak. The top-seeded Giants and No. 2 Carolina are the obvious favorites and the most complete teams in the NFC.
"Why not us?" Atlanta receiver Roddy White said. "We're a good team. We beat a lot of good teams."
The Falcons just might have a point. At the moment, Atlanta has as much going for it as any team. Here are five reasons why the Falcons could win the NFC:
1. There's not a team out there right now that buys into its coach more than the Falcons buy into Smith. The coach and the players really don't think they have any limitations and they might be right. Smith has worked miracles since taking over a franchise that hit rock bottom with the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick sagas of last year. He's a motivator and he has got his team clicking at the right time.
"We never really talked about wins and losses," Smith said. "We talked about milestones. I told the guys in there today, this milestone we reached today was something we had four opportunities to reach previously in the season and that's to win three football games in a row. That's something that we haven't done. To me, that's very big."
|Watch highlights from the Falcons' 31-27 win over the Rams.|
2. Smith might have the best staff of assistants in the NFL. A lot of the Falcons haven't been to the playoffs before, but this coaching staff has and knows how to prepare for the postseason. Perhaps the best thing Smith has done since joining the Falcons -- and he has done a lot of great things -- was selecting his assistants. He's got a staff of all-stars, including assistant head coach Emmitt Thomas, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, special teams coach Keith Armstrong, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, receivers coach Terry Robiskie and an unsung hero in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who has gotten way more than he should have out of a defense that's not stocked with a lot of individual talent.
3. Atlanta's style of play is the kind you can win with in the postseason. They run the ball exceptionally well, and Michael Turner closed out his first regular season as a featured back with a 208-yard game, his second 200-yard game of the season and his eighth 100-yard game. Turner's a grinder behind a very good offensive line.
"We can run the ball and run the clock," White said.
That could come in very handy in keeping Arizona's explosive offense off the field in the first-round matchup.
4. The rookie quarterback is way better than you think. Smith trusts Matt Ryan so much that the entire playbook is open to the quarterback and has been for quite some time. There have been young quarterbacks who have gone deep into the playoffs (Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Carolina's Kerry Collins come to mind). But they got there because they had great teams around them and just had to manage the game.
Ryan does a lot more than that. When the Falcons run their no-huddle offense, a lot of decisions are left up to Ryan and he looks a lot like Peyton Manning at times. Ryan has shown he can win games and he just gets better every week.
By the way, Atlanta's other rookie "quarterback" also is advanced beyond his years. That's middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has emerged as the team's best linebacker.
5. Going on the road might not be as tough as it looks.
"The Giants won three road games and they went to the Super Bowl last year," White said. "It can be done."
Starting off at Arizona, which won a weak NFC West, might be the best opening game the Falcons could draw. The Falcons showed they can handle changes in time zones, winning at Oakland and San Diego this season. If beating the Raiders and Chargers doesn't impress you, consider this: The Falcons beat Minnesota in the Metrodome and the Packers (back when it still looked as if they were respectable) at Lambeau Field, and that was only the fifth game of Ryan's career.
"We're very confident," Atlanta center Todd McClure said. "We know what type of team we have and we know we can compete with anybody out there. We can take that confidence into these games, protect the football and play our best. We know we can beat anybody. It's been fun and, hopefully, we're going to keep it going and wind up down in Tampa."