At 9-5, Falcons soaring and Bucs stumbling

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- If you've seen Matt Ryan play on television, you already have a pretty good sense of what the Atlanta Falcons' rookie quarterback is like as a person. In Ryan, you've also got a sense of what the Falcons are all about.

He's cool, he's smooth and, even though you know he's 23 years old, you sometimes need a reminder.

Take what happened in Ryan's news conference after Sunday's 13-10 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome. The quarterback was asked to compare Tampa Bay's defense to the defense of the Minnesota Vikings, the team the Falcons play next week.

"I'm not sure," Ryan said. "I've never played against Minnesota before. I'm not certain what their scheme is. I haven't looked at them yet."

That's a very honest answer and it also shows the Falcons truly have taken on the personality of their quarterback. These days, everything is new to the Falcons. One year and two days after Bobby Petrino resigned as coach and rock bottom made its headquarters in Atlanta, the Falcons are winners.

They're 9-5 and very much in the NFC playoff picture with a game in Minneapolis next week and a regular-season finale at home. The Buccaneers also are 9-5 with upcoming home games against San Diego and Oakland. Ordinarily, you'd look at the schedule and give the Bucs the edge over the Falcons in the playoff race. But there's nothing ordinary about this season or about the Falcons.

"We're not worried about a winning season right now," said linebacker Keith Brooking, one of the few veterans who actually has been through a playoff drive with the Falcons before. "Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn't to have a winning season."

While the rest of the world seemed to predict about three or four wins for the Falcons and was trying to figure out who the heck Mike Smith was, there actually were a few people who believed something like this was possible.

"That's what we talked about, getting into the tournament and we've given ourselves an opportunity," Brooking said. "What mattered was inside those doors at Flowery Branch [where the Falcons practice]. The outside doesn't matter."

All along, Smith has talked about a "process." He has never quite defined it and you have to wonder if that process has gotten a bit jumbled. You have to at least wonder if the Falcons, who seemed to be set back a decade by Petrino and Michael Vick, are about a year or two ahead of schedule in the process Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff envisioned.

Smith isn't saying, but it's very realistic that a playoff berth this year might be part of the process.

"This was a big win for us because we've gone through this entire season and not had back-to-back losses," Smith said. "If you don't have back-to-back losses at the end of the season, you're going to be around where you want to be. We've talked about the milestones that we've reached and this is a milestone that we're continuing to be able to do."

Really, the only milestone left is a spot in the playoffs. Funny, but that scenario seemed like a certainty for the Buccaneers exactly a week ago.

It's still a good possibility. But as the fans in Atlanta were getting giddy in the last few seconds of overtime, you could almost feel a worry front moving in from the south. In Tampa Bay, there has to be some cause for concern about a collapse.

The Bucs have gone from controlling the NFC South to desperately needing a win or at least some help just to get a wild-card berth. Carolina (11-3) smacked the Bucs around Monday night and has a shot to move ahead of the Giants for the No. 1 seed when the Panthers travel to East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday.

Sure, it's still possible Carolina or Atlanta could stumble and Tampa Bay could surge. But if the last two games mean anything, there's really no reason to think the Bucs are hitting their peak.

They played without starting quarterback Jeff Garcia on Sunday and it showed. Backup Brian Griese did throw for 269 yards, but the fact he's not as mobile as Garcia might have played a role in four sacks and the Bucs reaching the end zone only once. Aside from receiver Antonio Bryant, who has 308 receiving yards in the last two games, there are no bright spots on offense.

The defense bounced back from a disastrous outing at Carolina, but it wasn't good enough to stop Ryan, running back Michael Turner and the rest of the Atlanta offense in overtime.

If that formula isn't good enough to win you a regular-season game, it's not going to win in the playoffs. It may even leave you short of the playoffs.

The NFL has a long and complicated list of tiebreakers that settle things if the playoff picture gets clogged up.

It might come down to that in two w
eeks. But right now, the Falcons hold the edge in the category that matters most.

They've got momentum.

The Falcons are soaring beyond all expectations and unless San Diego or Oakland brings a trampoline to Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs may have a tough time breaking their fall.