There is nothing that makes you sit upright and take notice of the Falcons. Their quarterback doesn't have a supermodel spouse or a Justin Bieber haircut. Their leading rusher doesn't wear dreadlocks or gold caps over his front teeth. And their top receiver doesn't have a reality show.
The only thing that grabs your attention about these Undirty Birds is their nondescriptness. Despite finishing with the NFC's best record at 13--3, the Falcons were chocolate, strawberry and vanilla in a league of Jamoca Almond Fudges and Chunky Monkeys. And that might make them the most dangerous team in the playoffs.
"They don't do anything fancy," says one personnel exec whose team lost to Atlanta late in the year. "They don't use a lot of gimmicks or wow you in any one area. They just play fundamentally sound football. They execute their assignments as well as anyone."
While other teams dazzled with big plays, Atlanta numbed onlookers with quiet consistency. The stats don't overwhelm: The Falcons ranked 12th in rushing and 15th in passing, 10th against the run and 22nd against the pass, fifth in scoring and fifth in fewest points allowed. One place they did stand out: discipline. Atlanta was the league's least penalized team and had a better turnover differential than all but two clubs. "Everything they do is so efficient," Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant said before a 34--18 loss in Week 15. "They're not careless with the ball, and everything they do is 100 miles an hour."
The offense revolves around running back Michael Turner, who has the power and compact build to grind it out and the speed to take the ball 80 yards. He sets the table for quarterback Matt Ryan, the third-year pro who is as cool as he is competitive. Ryan is accurate (62.5%), can make any throw and plays his best at home, where he won 15 in a row before a late-season loss to the Saints and is 20--2 overall. When Ryan does make a mistake, it's often erased by his receivers. Wideout Roddy White led the league in catches with 115, and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (70 receptions) is a constant threat in the red zone.
Defensively, the Falcons compensate for a lack of size in their front seven with gap discipline, athleticism, quickness and speed. Ends John Abraham and the unsung Kroy Biermann are pass-rush threats; the latter made one of the season's top defensive plays with a diving interception that he returned 31 yards for a touchdown at Cleveland in Week 5.
The real beauty of the Falcons is how their offense and defense complement each other. By being able to run the ball and control the clock—Atlanta ranked third in drives of 10 plays or longer, averaging 2.2 per game—their defense played fewer snaps than all but seven teams. That may not be sexy, but winning sure is.
HOW TO BEAT THE FALCONS
The best approach to slowing Atlanta's attack is to key on Michael Turner and pressure Matt Ryan in second- and third-and-long situations. The problem with that strategy: Using an extra defender to stop the run means one-on-one coverage on Roddy White and/or Tony Gonzalez. If you don't have quality cover corners—or a hellacious pass rush—forget about stopping this offense.
Wear down that undersized front seven by being physical and running the ball. The Falcons were gashed late in the year by Tampa Bay and Carolina and pounded hard by the Saints at home, and if opponents can effectively run against them, that can set up play-action passes that can exploit Atlanta's young safeties.
How NFC first seeds have fared since 1990
7 Won Super Bowl
5 Lost Super Bowl
6 Lost conference championship game
2 Lost in divisional round
— Lost in wild-card round
JASON MILLER/US PRESSWIRE
HONEST ABE Veteran end Abraham fronts a small but smart and speedy front seven.