Prior to the Atlanta Falcons facing the Philadelphia Eagles, the perception was that one team would play with desperation and one would play with complacency. On Sunday, that is exactly what happened—only the roles were reversed.
Most pundits expected the Eagles to play with the ferocity of a cornered animal (myself included as you can read here). Some expected the Falcons to be overconfident and come out flat.
Yet, it was the Atlanta Falcons who came out focused and determined. The only time the Falcons stumbled in the 30-17 victory was while trying to take their foot off the gas. This was in large part due to Atlanta's Mike Smith taking a different approach in game preparation.
In the past, Smith has focused on keeping his team steady. Smith has done a good job keeping the Falcons from getting too high or too low from week to week. Yet, during the two weeks leading up to the highly anticipated game in Philadelphia, Smith allowed the team to focus on the Eagles' emotion.
Prior to the game, running back Michael Turner said, "We're going to expect a good football game. They [Eagles] know they can't take too many more losses."
2009 New Orleans Saints provide proof
Until just prior to the coin toss, I firmly believed the Indianapolis Colts would win Super Bowl XLIV. But as the New Orleans Saints' and Indianapolis Colts' team captains waited on the coin toss, it was clearly evident that the Saints had the upper hand.
The Colts' players were as calm as a preseason game. The Saints' captains seemed fidgety, almost chomping at the bit to start the game.
The Saints would go on to play inspired football and become champions.
Smith will not "Bobby Cox" in 2012
The city of Atlanta had another coach known for great regular seasons and playoff disappointment: former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. Cox was known for his laid back approach to the postseason. His "just another game" approach was often over-matched by opponents playing as if there were no tomorrow.
In the Falcons last two one-and-done trips to the playoffs, there were plenty of coaches and players to point a finger at. But the Falcons also failed to match either the Green Bay Packers' or the New York Giants' intensity. This may not be the case if the Falcons make the playoffs in 2012.
Smith should see the value in allowing players to feel the weight of the game. He has spent five seasons building a "team first" squad that is mature enough to deal with pressure. If he allows those players to prepare for desperate and dangerous opponents, Smith stands a great chance of getting over the playoff hump.