The Atlanta Falcons have been headed down this path before.
With an impressive 12-2 record heading into Week 16, the Falcons have dominated the 2012 regular season just like they did in 2010, when they finished 13-3.
The Falcons took the No.1 seed that year. They got their first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Everything was looking up for Atlanta—until the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers steamrolled their way to a 48-21 victory, leaving everyone in the Georgia Dome shell-shocked.
As the score indicates, the Falcons defense was much to blame for that loss.
This year, it's the reason they're winning.
Despite all of its weapons, Atlanta's offense has struggled more than it would like throughout the season.
There to save the day, however, has been its defense.
It started back in Week 1. Holding a slim 20-17 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs entering the third quarter, three second-half turnovers helped the Falcons pull away to a 40-24 final.
In Week 2, three first-quarter interceptions helped the Falcons jump out to a 20-7 halftime lead en route to a 27-21 decision over the Denver Broncos.
In Week 3, Atlanta's defense held the San Diego Chargers' explosive offense to a mere three points, all while forcing four turnovers on the day.
The list goes on, all the way to last week's convincing 34-0 shutout win over the New York Giants.
Sure, the defense may be giving up a whopping 354 yards a game (14th-most in the league).
Yet time and time again, the Falcons have allowed opposing offenses to cruise near or into the red zone, only to come away with three points or none at all.
It's no surprise then that Atlanta's defense dominates the stats that matter: seventh-lowest red-zone touchdown scoring percentage (48.57 percent), sixth-most takeaways in the league (27), fifth-fewest touchdowns allowed (27) and fourth-fewest points points per game allowed (18.5).
Aside from those being improvements on 2010's defense, one major difference exists: The 2012 version has proven it can step up against the NFL's elite.
Some of the Falcons' best defensive efforts have been against some of the league's top quarterbacks, including forcing a combined 12 interceptions against Peyton and Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, keeping Michael Vick and the Eagles to 17 points the one day he doesn't turn the ball over and holding Tony Romo and his potent Cowboys offense to 3-of-10 on third downs and 13 total points in prime time.
These are the kinds of quarterbacks the Falcons will face in the playoffs—and have the confidence they can stop in the playoffs. It's a confidence that wasn't there in years prior, and certainly not when Aaron Rodgers was literally unstoppable as he handed Atlanta the most lopsided loss by a No. 1 seed in NFL history two years ago.
It ultimately assures one thing come this postseason: The Falcons may end up allowing their opponents to gain hundreds of yards of offense. But those yards likely won't come with many points and definitely not without a few turnovers.
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