Resilient Falcons have chance to soar

Coach Mike Smith and the Falcons likely won't quiet their critics until they have postseason success. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere in the process -- and I can’t put my finger on exactly where -- Mike Smith changed buzzwords.

The coach of the Atlanta Falcons still is about as predictable as a Mike Mularkey offense. But “the process" Smith talked so much about in his first four seasons has seemed to disappear from his vocabulary this season.

In its place, Smith is using the word “resilient" as often as Mularkey used to call runs up the middle for Michael Turner.

“You reflect back on the 12 games that we’ve played and one of the things you realize is that we’re a resilient team," Smith told the local media Monday.

I chuckled a bit when I first read the quote. That’s only because I’ve heard Smith use “resilient," “resilience" or “resiliency" after just about every Atlanta game I've been to this year. By unofficial count, he has used some variation of the word multiple times in the same news conference on more than one occasion.

Hurry up and print the “Resilient Birds" T-shirts. They’ll be a big seller for the holidays.

But in a season in which die-hard fans and skeptics alike have been waiting for the Falcons to develop a true identity, maybe they already have. Maybe the best and worst thing you can say about the Falcons is that they are a resilient team.

That might not be flashy, but there’s nothing wrong with being resilient.

That has been a big part of the reason the Falcons, who play at Carolina on Sunday, are 11-1 and already have clinched the NFC South title.

Yeah, I know fans like to nitpick because the Falcons haven’t really put together a complete game and blown an opponent out of the stadium. Skeptics get on the Falcons for the same reason.

Count Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy among the critics. On Wednesday, he said the Falcons aren’t as good as their record. Tampa Bay’s Adam Hayward and Donald Penn have made a similar claim. So have various members of the New Orleans Saints.

I get Hardy’s point. The Panthers took the Falcons down to the wire in the Georgia Dome early in the season. Atlanta won 30-28 in a game the Panthers had every chance to win.

That has been the story with a lot of Atlanta’s games this season. The Falcons seem to let even the weakest opponents (see the Arizona Cardinals) hang in there right until the end and then do just enough to get the win. That beats the alternative.

It has to be frustrating for fans, and it’s understandable that opponents walk away with the impression the Falcons really aren’t that good. I’ve thought the same thing at times.

But the more I think about the Falcons, the more I’m convinced they really are good. A team can be lucky here and there. But when at team is lucky week after week, that’s no accident. When a team repeatedly wins close games in the NFL, it's doing something right.

The Falcons have done plenty of things right. They just haven’t done them all at once. In the past two games, the defense has carried Atlanta. The Falcons picked off New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times in the last outing and held Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin to 50 rushing yards the week before.

Early in the season, Matt Ryan and the passing game carried the Falcons. At times, even Turner and a running game that’s not what it once was have been responsible for the Falcons closing in on the No. 1 NFC seed in the playoffs.

No, the Falcons haven’t been dominant this season. But look around the league and tell me who has. I don’t see a dominant team out there.

What I do see is an Atlanta team that has won 11 of 12 games. Salute (don't bash) the Falcons for that.

“We don’t blink," Smith said. “We focus on the next play. When you do that, you’re going to have a chance to be successful.”

The Falcons have been very successful. But everyone knows the true measure of Atlanta’s success will be the postseason. Everyone knows that although the Falcons have won a lot of regular-season games since the arrival of Smith and Ryan in 2008, they have yet to win a postseason game.

It’s easy to flash back to the 2010 season -- when the Falcons went 13-3, had the No. 1 seed and were beaten at home by the Green Bay Packers -- and say this team is headed for a similar fate. But it doesn’t have to end that way for the Falcons.

Remember, even a creature of habit such as Smith can change buzzwords.

“We’re just starting the fourth quarter of the season, and there is going to be a lot of things happening over these last four weeks,’’ Smith said. “It’ll be fun for the teams involved. It ought to be fun for the fans and it’s going to be fun for the coaches. Football in December, it can’t get any better.”

Yeah, actually it can get better. If Smith still is using the word “resilient" in January, it might mean the Falcons have a chance to play into February.