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Thursday, January 5, 2012
Updated: January 6, 3:14 PM ET
Do you really want to insult Falcons?

By Shaun Powell
ESPNNewYork.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Last time these birds were called "dirty," they flapped their wings and flew to the Super Bowl. Just sayin', Justin Tuck.

As for the latest dirty designation regarding their blocking techniques and behavior after the whistle is blown, the Atlanta Falcons shrugged off the charge like so much dandruff.

Tuck, the New York Giants' defensive captain, didn't personally accuse the Falcons' offensive line of being "dirtbags," and even if he did, it really wouldn't have mattered. These Falcons don't ruffle easily. They're not the Jets. Their locker room is too mature and focused on the game. Or at least they gave that impression Wednesday.

B.J. Raji and Matt Ryan
Last season's one-and-done in the playoffs is a sore point for Matt Ryan and the Falcons.

"If a dirtbag is someone who gets downfield to protect one of our guys with the ball in his hand, then that's what we are," center Todd McClure said. "I know a big deal is going to be made of [Tuck's comments], but we don't think it's a big deal."

You see? No hard feelings, none at all. Rather than throw a punch back at Tuck, the Falcons tossed pretty bouquets instead.

"I've been around him a few times, and he seems like a really nice guy," said tackle Tyson Clabo, who sounded sincere. "I don't think he meant what he said. I certainly wouldn't call him anything except a very good player."

So there you have it. Controversy over. Or rather, controversy never really started.

But there is an accusation the Falcons are sensitive about, one that's annoying and one they'd rather not have thrown in their faces by their fans anymore. It's "playoff crumblers." Now that's playing dirty. If Tuck or any of the Giants had had fun with the Falcons being 0-2 in the postseason under coach Mike Smith, then there would be hell to pay.

The best way the Falcons can squash that impression, whether it's true or not-so-true, is at the expense of the Giants in the wild-card game on Sunday. For as much respect as they've earned for putting the Michael Vick stink well behind them and moving far forward with quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons are still looking for a big January moment. Last winter, despite being a 1-seed, they were carved up on their own field by Aaron Rodgers. They've averaged 11 wins the past four regular seasons with no candy to show for it. And that's what eats at them. Nothing else.

"We can't keep losing in the first round," said sack master John Abraham, a former Jet. "We're too good for that."

Are they? We'll see. For sure, the Falcons are bringing some talent, as well as some holes. They're a Super Bowl contender, one that hasn't always looked the part. Basically, on certain Sundays they're a coin toss, especially against the really good teams, who've had their way against Atlanta this season.

They've lost to the Bears and Packers, and twice to the Saints. Which means they're a virtual carbon copy of the Giants, an otherwise dangerous team that's had head-scratching lapses. But at least the Giants do have a Super Bowl win on Eli Manning's watch. The Falcons, at this point, would be happy with Ryan getting them beyond the weekend. For as much shame as he brought the franchise and himself, Vick took the Falcons further than Ryan has, with lesser teammates.

Much will depend on the offensive line and whether it can keep the heat off Matty Ice and prevent him from throwing picks; he has four in his only two playoff games. Ryan has been sacked 26 times this season and will see a Giants defense with 48 sacks, third-most in football. Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul aren't for the faint of heart.

If Ryan is protected, he's truly dangerous; he did crack 4,000 yards for the first time in his four-year career. And he has some serious weapons, maybe as good as those of any other quarterback still working, with former league reception leader Roddy White, game-breaking rookie Julio Jones and the old reliable, tight end Tony Gonzalez.

"It's up to all of us," Ryan said, "but especially it's up to me to get it done."

And now you understand why Ryan's linemen might be tempted to sneak a knee to the groin of the Giants, even though they insist that's not their style. There's so much at stake for the Falcons, if only to erase bad playoff memories in 2008 and '10. And they must beat the Giants away from the comforts of Dome, in chilly and hostile territory.

And the possibility of cheap shots? They're the seventh-least penalized team in football, drawing fewer flags than the Giants, so maybe Tuck's take on the Falcons' rep is faulty.

"We have a style we play, and it's physical," tackle Will Svitek said. "We pride ourselves in being physical. We want them to know we're here. We play hard. We don't view it as cheap. We don't play past the whistle.

"As for what Tuck or anyone else may think, our whole group had fun with it. We joked about it."

Besides, they could've been called worse. How many demeaning names end in "bag"? Gasbag. Fleabag. And a few others that can't be printed, only spoken in the trenches on the field.

The one name the Falcons don't want to hear any more is PC in initials only. "Playoff crumblers" is for the birds, you might say, just not these birds, the Falcons insist. Well. They'll have to prove that on game day, when it's time to get down and dirty.

Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.