The Atlanta Falcons are a completely different team in the 2012 season than they were in their previous three playoff exits. Because of that, they will beat whomever they face in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Falcons have jumped out to a 13-2 record living off of new schemes, a new attitude and the play of a quarterback who is being snubbed for MVP consideration. Because of this, they have locked up home-field advantage and have turned in one of the best performances as a team this season.
However, there is one thing that is missing. A playoff win.
The Falcons have what could be an easy four weeks travel wise should they win their first playoff game. It would look like this: home game, bye week, home game, home game. And this will play into the Falcons not having an early exit this year.
However, the biggest thing that will make sure they don't leave the playoffs early is their ability to find ways to win games, the overall new attitude of the team and how they have learned from past mistakes.
They Are Learning From Past Mistakes
They lost 30-24 in Arizona against the Cardinals after going 11-5 in 2008. They got crushed 48-21 at home vs. the Packers after going 13-3 in 2010. Then in 2011, they got shut down 24-2 in New York against the Giants.
The first loss showed the Falcons that their defense was aging. With starters Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy leading the charge, Atlanta has just two players left from that 2008 defense still on the roster—Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham.
The defensive overhaul complete, the key cogs of the defense are draft picks since 2007—Thomas DeCoud and William Moore at safety and then Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas at linebacker.
The second loss showed that Atlanta needed to add an explosive option both in the backfield and at receiver. Getting blown out by the Packers at home was not a great way to end a season that started with such promise. But adding Julio Jones has proven to be the smart move, and then later on adding Jacquizz Rodgers has proven to pay dividends this year.
The Falcons use every mistake from previous years to learn what to change. However, they finally figured out in 2011 that the biggest problem was the coordinators and their overly conservative schemes and play calls.
Once the Falcons changed that—in addition to the explosive option of Julio Jones and replacing the older linebackers for more talented ones—they looked like a different team for once. Atlanta will win a playoff game this year, and the critics will finally be silenced.
New "Swagger" Has Already Led to Better Results
As I wrote back in June, the Falcons needed to have "Aggressive," "Hungry," and "Swagger" as their mottoes for this year and beyond. Watching them this season, there has only been one game that they haven't had any of the three words as able to describe the Falcons performance. That's a big part of why they are now 13-2 and have the best record in the NFL this season.
The attitude lift was brought in by starting corner Asante Samuel and new coordinators Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter. Samuel was the one who brought in the swagger the Falcons needed. His veteran presence on defense was something that the Falcons were missing in the past two playoff losses to the Giants and the Packers.
The addition of him and the new coordinators has also brought an aggression that had been missing in both the offense and the defense. When you see the Falcons offense, it has elements that were completely missing in past years.
The screen pass was the biggest element missing in the offense, and it's one that Ryan has used to take the next step. According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN, Ryan had completed 50-of-57 screen passes for 374 yards and five touchdowns.
Ryan's ability on deep passes has also improved. On 45 attempts this season, he has 20 completions for 754 yards and six touchdowns. That is up from just 11 completions on 47 attempts in 2011 for just 389 yards and four touchdowns. The ability to take shots down-field and be more aggressive on offense has been huge for the Falcons in 2012.
On defense, the Falcons have increased their blitzing and have started to use multiple looks outside of a traditional pure four-man front alignment that they ran in Mike Smith's first four years as head coach.
The confusion of quarterbacks all year with multiple fronts has led to Drew Brees and both of the Manning brothers combining for 11 interceptions against the Falcons. The more aggressive defense has completely changed the Falcons into one of the strongest teams in the league and because of the scheme, they will not be leaving the playoffs early in 2012.
The New Attitude Starts from the Top and If You Can't Buy In, You Are Gone
Falcons owner Arthur Blank was quoted at the end of the 2011 season saying the following (h/t Dan Parr of Pro Football Weekly):
"We're not there yet," Blank said. "I think that's the step that we have to make. I've often used the expression 'Good is the enemy of great.' We have to become great. That's often a very difficult step to make in a league that's designed to promote parity. We're on the door. We're knocking, but we're on the other side of the door. We're not on the inside. We need to get on the inside."
And with that, Arthur Blank made his point. He doesn't want just the good teams that have been playing the past four years. The Falcons have a new era where good is just not good enough any more.
The biggest move that says the Falcons are for real isn't someone they brought in. It's someone they kicked out. Ray Edwards was cut after the Falcons played the Saints the first time this season. It was because he was unable to buy into what the coaches were preaching (h/t NFL.com's Marc Sessler).
When a team wants to turn in its best performance in years, the only way to do that is to have a message that just "good" will never be accepted. And if you can't get the message, the team doesn't need you to be a part of it.
The Falcons Find Ways To Win Games
In the end, the biggest thing the Falcons have the advantage in is how they just find ways to win games. They can beat people decisively by 10 or more points as they have done that six times this season. They can also come back and win a close game, as they are 7-1 in games decided by seven points or less this year.
In those seven games they won by seven points or less, a different part of the team stood up and took the initiative. In the Denver and Oakland games, defensive secondary play is what turned the Falcons into a winner. Against Arizona, Dallas and Tampa Bay, the Falcons defense as a whole shut down the opponents to keep the offense in striking distance.
However, Matt Ryan has been the man in five games. He led game-winning drives against Carolina, Washington, Oakland, Arizona and Tampa Bay. Without his heroic efforts at the end of the games, the Falcons could just as easily be 8-7 and hoping that another team loses just to make the playoffs.
Matt Bryant has also been amazing with three late kicks that either sealed the games or gave Atlanta the win. But whether it's Matt Ryan making a huge pass late, Asante Samuel getting a pick-six with little time left or Matt Bryant kicking a last-minute field goal, the Falcons will find a way to win. And because of this, they won't just win their first playoff game this year, either.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL Draft. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek, runs the NFL Draft Website ScarDraft.com and hosts Kvetching Draftniks Radio.