FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Less than 15 hours after his team suffered the most lopsided defeat of his tenure, Falcons coach Mike Smith was more concerned with fixing his teams mistakes than he was about any discussion of the playoffs in two weeks.
The Falcons clinched their third playoff berth in Smiths four seasons on Sunday when Green Bay defeated Chicago, but the coach was in no mood to say whether he would prefer to get another shot at New Orleans -- a likely scenario -- after the Saints 45-16 victory on Monday.
Well, guys, Ill be quite frank with you, Im not concerned about our seeding, who were going to play, Smith said. Theres a lot of football to be played this last weekend. I think we have to focus on what we can control and thats going out and playing effective football against Tampa Bay this week and well find out after the game where were going in terms of the second season.
Were excited about the opportunity. It doesnt feel good right now after the performance we had last night, but we cant worry about the playoffs. Weve got to go out and play good football this Sunday and get this bad taste out of our mouth.
Smith called the game humbling and indeed it was. New Orleans was perfect on third-down conversions in the first half, making good on all eight tries. Only an interception in the end zone prevented the Saints from scoring touchdowns on all four of their possessions in the half.
By intermission, the Saints had amassed 306 yards total offense -- the kind of stats more often seen when Southeastern Conference powerhouses play directional schools in the early weeks of the college season. The cherry on top of the Falcons sundae of misery was allowing the Saints to score a touchdown with 2:51 left in regulation so that quarterback Drew Brees could break Dan Marinos 27-year-old single-season passing yardage record.
While some anonymous Falcons were said to grouse in various media reports about the indignity of the Saints running up the score so that Brees could break the record, Smith refused to take the bait after the game or on Tuesday afternoon.
Guys, its our job as a defense to stop the offense, Smith said. Its the offenses job to try to gain yards and theyre going to gain yards in whatever way they think they need to do it and we didnt get it done.
"In regards to Drew Brees, its a monumental record that he set last night in the ballgame and my hats off to Drew for the season hes put together to beat Dan Marinos record. But in terms of when it happened, why it happened in the ballgame, hey, guys, its our job as a defense to go out and stop them if theyre trying to run it, if theyre trying to throw it, weve got to stop them and we didnt do that.
While its not Smiths style to reveal much about the psyche of his team, one can only wonder what a sound beating from its arch-rival -- a team that the Falcons felt they still had a chance to unseat for the NFC South title going into Mondays game -- will do to its confidence.
Having lost twice this season to the Saints and in five out of the last six meetings and knowing that any return matchup would be played in the hostile confines of the Superdome, the Falcons could look at the opportunity two ways. One would be that after suffering such a crushing blow, it would be hard to mount a charge for the second time in two weeks with the Saints taking on aura of invincibility. The other would be to embrace the challenge.
If Detroit beats Green Bay or the Falcons lose to Tampa Bay -- which would seem unlikely -- and San Francisco defeats St. Louis, the Falcons would find themselves back in New Orleans on the weekend of Jan. 7-8.
Smith did not answer directly when asked if he would like another shot at the Saints to prove that Monday was, to use his word after the game an aberration.
We cant control where were going, who were going to play, he said. I know this: Our focus right now is on Tampa Bay. Once the Tampa Bay game is over, we will move our focus to the second season and whoever were going to be matched up playing against, thats the team that were going to be excited about playing.
Were not even thinking about the playoff scenarios right now. Were thinking about correcting the things that weve got to correct as a coaching staff and as a football team so we can go play well this season.
His team gave him many things to correct on Monday. He discussed tackling, the pass rush and not playing physical enough to win the battles on the line of scrimmage -- in many ways, so many of the most elementary concepts of football.
Fortunately for the Falcons, the Buccaneers (4-11) present an ideal opponent against which to fix mistakes. Tampa Bay has lost nine straight, the longest current streak in the league. In their last four games, the Bucs have given up 38, 41, 31 and 48 points.
Yet even if the Falcons beat up on the Bucs, as they did against another 4-11 in Jacksonville on Dec. 15, it could be hard to dispel the notion that the Falcons are capable of beating top teams or, in particular, teams with top quarterbacks.
The only teams they have beaten with a winning record are Detroit and Tennessee. The best quarterbacks they have beaten are Michael Vick in a subpar season, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton, a rookie. They have lost to Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman, Brees twice and Aaron Rodgers.
Believe me, and I said it last night, our goal is much higher than just making the playoffs, Smith said. Hey, we were fighting for a higher seed last night in the ballgame. There was a lot of motivation for our team, there was a lot of motivation for their team. They went out and played better. But I can assure you: For our organization our goal is not just to make the playoffs. Our goals are much higher than that.
We have a road map that you have to follow to get there, meaning that youve got games to play and we didnt play very good last night. Its a humbling experience for all of us because we didnt play Atlanta Falcons football like we know were capable of playing.