Already deep into their third consecutive season of double-digit victories, the Atlanta Falcons might be wise to heed the words of a most unlikely source.
They should look to their biggest rival, perhaps the National Football League’s biggest rival.
They should follow the advice of Sean Payton.
In 2009, Payton and the New Orleans Saints were looking to get over a big hump. The coach repeatedly told his players that if they wanted to get to somewhere they’d never been before (winning the Super Bowl), they had to do things they’d never done before. The Saints listened. They hadn’t played a lot of defense in Payton’s first three seasons, but that unit suddenly started producing turnovers and New Orleans got its Super Bowl championship.
Payton is serving a seasonlong suspension and won’t be with the Saints when they come to the Georgia Dome on Thursday night. But if he hasn’t already, it’s time for Atlanta coach Mike Smith to deliver a similar message to his team.
If the Falcons really want to get to a Super Bowl, or even win in the postseason for the first time in the Smith era, it’s time to start shedding the labels. It’s time for the Falcons to do the things they’ve never done -- or in this case almost never done.
They need to get a victory against the Saints. That might send a signal to the world -- and, in the process, to themselves -- that the Falcons are ready for bigger and better things.
Yeah, beating a team with a 5-6 record usually doesn’t qualify as a big deal. But this situation is different.
On the tree of doing things they haven’t done in the Smith era, beating the Saints is just a few branches beneath winning a postseason game. Let’s be clear that the Falcons have won against the Saints in the Smith era -- just not very often.
In 2008, the year Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons won a Week 10 game at the Georgia Dome. In Week 3 of the 2010 season, the Falcons went to New Orleans and won in overtime.
Other than that, Smith and Ryan have been picked on by the Saints. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Falcons are 2-7 against the Saints, which includes a game a few weeks ago in New Orleans where Atlanta was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.
If you want to go back even before Smith and Ryan came along, the Saints have won 11 of their past 13 meetings with the Falcons.
No wonder New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle referred to the Falcons as the Saints’ little brother after New Orleans won the most recent meeting -- a game in which Shanle wasn’t even on the game-day active list.
No wonder New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was part of Smith’s first draft class and the leader of Atlanta’s defense the past four seasons, spoke out in the postgame locker room after his first meeting with his former team and said "rivalry" isn’t an accurate term to describe the relationship between the Saints and Falcons. Lofton sloughed it off as just another division game, pointing to the fact the Saints have dominated the series in recent years.
But sometimes the little brother grows up, becomes bigger than the older brother and starts dunking in the driveway basketball games or winning the wrestling matches. Sometimes the little brother grows bigger but, out of habit, continues to play second fiddle.
You can make a case that the second scenario applies to the last time the Falcons and Saints got together. The Falcons were a yard away from winning in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but couldn’t punch in a late touchdown against the league’s worst defense.
Until the Falcons stand up and beat the Saints, it’s fair game to wonder if the Saints are in the Falcons' heads.
“We’re just going to go out there Thursday night and let our play do all the talking, and we’re just going to go out there and play hard," said Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who played on playoff teams in New England and Philadelphia.
The Falcons like to say this season's team is different than Smith’s previous teams. At times, it has looked like new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan have brought different attitudes to both sides of the ball and Samuel has brought a swagger that seemed to be missing in the past. At other times, usually when the Falcons have won close games against bad teams, they look like the same old team that has lost three playoff games under Smith.
If the Falcons are going to win in the postseason this time around, a win against the Saints would be a step on the ladder. Beating the Saints has been a slippery step in the past, but if the Falcons finally put that rung behind them, the next steps could get easier.