The Atlanta Falcons will have plenty of problems when they face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Falcons offense will face the most consistent defense they have seen all year. There are plenty of scenarios that head coach Mike Smith should be worrying about.
Being in the lead should not be one, but it is.
And it is a problem that only Mike Smith can solve.
Hurry Up and Hang On
The Falcons have struggled maintaining the lead all year. Sometimes it is momentary, sometimes it is an entire half. It might be more than other teams adjusting. It might run deeper than conservative play-calling as well.
When a situation happens often enough, it ceases to be coincidence. The 2012 season has been littered with examples.
In Week 2, the Falcons dominate the Denver Broncos in the first half to the tune of 20-7. The Falcons then struggle to hang on for a 27-21 victory.
In Week 4, the Falcons took a 24-14 third quarter lead on the Carolina Panthers. Yet they would need a non-clutch fumble from Cam Newton and a clutch drive by Matt Ryan to pull out the 30-28 nail-biter.
In Week 12, the Falcons were dominating the rival New Orleans Saints 17-0 midway through the second quarter. Though they would win the game 23-13, the Falcons would not score again until the fourth quarter.
Most disturbing of them all, the Falcons took a 20-0 against the Seattle Seahawks into halftime. The second half witnessed the Seahawks almost make a historical comeback. The Falcons would stage a signature comeback of their own for the 30-28 victory.
How can a team go from dominant to doormat to dominant?
Deeper Than Play Calls
Conservative play calls might seem to be at the root. This is Mike Smith's first year not relying on Mike Mularkey's antiquated playbook. Smith might be adjusting to having a defense that can overcome mistakes.
Unfortunately for Smith, he might be failing to inspire his players.
After the roller coaster victory against the Seahawks, Roddy White opened up to Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports. Silver reported that White said, "We got a little lazy in the second half. We kind of got too complacent, too relaxed."
This was a Falcons team that had not won a playoff game together. This was a Falcons team that had heard all season they could not win a playoff game together. At first glance, being complacent could be brushed off as an excuse.
Roddy White has been known to be a talker. In Week 10, White spoke about his feelings towards the city of New Orleans. White provided plenty of bulletin board material before the Falcons loss.
But this is not an isolated instance.
Julio Jones is respected for his work ethic. Since joining the Falcons in 2011, Jones has let his play speak for itself. Yet even after the huge win against the New York Giants, Jones would point back to the loss against the Panthers as motivation.
Smith Finding His Way
Mike Smith has never been confused with Bill Belichick. Smith was not hired for his innovative schemes. That was his predecessor, Bobby Petrino. That did not turn out so well.
Smith was hired to bring stability to a shell-shocked franchise. Smith was hired to manage the game and make the tough decisions. Smith was hired to make the Falcons more consistent. For five years, Smith has done what he was hired to do.
Smith is already the winningest coach in Falcons history. He is the first Falcons coach to ever lead the team to a home NFC Championship Game. But when players make statements like these, does it show that Smith is losing the locker room already?
Most likely, no.
Smith prevented the team from losing back-to-back games in 2012. He kept the Falcons from throwing in the towel when all hope seemed lost at least seven times in 2012. Chances are, the team being too good will not be the death of him.
In fact, Smith has shown signs of adapting. Prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Smith changed his one-game-at-a-time mantra. Instead, he let the players feel the weight of that game. He let them listen to experts say the 3-3 Eagles were better than the 6-0 Falcons. He let the fact that Andy Reid was undefeated after a bye sink in.
The Falcons would decimate the Eagles 30-17.
Prior to the playoff win against the Seahawks, Smith cancelled the players' bye week and held practices instead. The Falcons became so dominant they became lazy.
If the Falcons manage to somehow overcome the 49ers, Smith will have to find yet another way to deal with success. In the end, it is a problem 28 other coaches wish they had.